Soon after she had started farming at Hoekiesdam near Wolseley in the Western Cape, Aletta Venter realised that traditional commercial productive practices were not going to work for her or the 38,5ha farm.
“My father, Barend Venter, bought the farm after retiring as the editor of a community newspaper in 1995. But it had little water and was considered too small to justify commercial production,” she says.
These limitations did not bother him much, as he regarded Hoekiesdam as a place to retire on. She, on the other hand, had obtained a degree in agriculture at Stellenbosch University and always dreamt of having a farm with cattle and horses in the Kalahari.
“Wolseley isn’t the Kalahari, but you have to work with what you have,” she says.
Venter tried to restore the severely neglected vineyards that came with the farm, but the experience reinforced her notion that she was better off drinking than cultivating wine. From there, she shifted her energy to dairy cattle, sheep and pasture production, but always felt that there was a more sustainable way of doing things.
In 1999, she and her late ex-husband, Peter von Maltitz, had difficulties in making the small farm work as a traditional livestock farm and found it challenging living in the same space as her parents. So the two went overseas for a year-and-a-half, visiting and working at dairies in Ireland and New Zealand. The experience showed them that it was possible to do things differently.
Venter was particularly impressed by a biodynamic dairy farm in New Zealand, which operated in a totally different league in terms of animal welfare, food safety and social and environmental responsibility, almost a decade before these issues became mainstream market concerns.
“The energy was amazing, and I instantly knew they’d found the missing ingredient,” she recalls.
She was even more delighted to learn that there was a biodynamic association in South Africa, with one of the movement’s pioneers, Jeanne Malherbe, living in Wellington, about an hour’s drive from Wolseley.
A NEW ERA
After a bumpy start, with Malherbe peppering Venter with many questions during their first meeting to discern her true intentions, the two became close friends. Malherbe was Venter’s mentor for the remaining seven years of her life, and Venter spent much time with her on her farm Bloublommetjieskloof to learn everything she could about biodynamic production.
Venter explains that biodynamics is rooted in the work of the scientist and philosopher Dr Rudolf Steiner, who in the 1920s presented lectures to farmers that created awareness of the interconnectedness of the spiritual and physical world. His lectures were in reaction to the highly mechanistic view of nature that started taking hold in the early 20th century and that led to the development of synthetically produced fertilisers and pesticides.
“Steiner was the first to view a farm as a holistic and self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity, the integration of crops and livestock, and the creation of a closed loop system of fertility, the idea being that nothing should go to waste on a farm,” explains Venter.
Along with this came awareness of the way in which cosmic forces, such as the position of the moon and planets, are believed to influence production, and this is used to govern farming practices such as planting, harvesting, weeding and the application of compost.
Steiner also developed a set of homeopathic-like preparations to help build a farm’s innate immune system, fertility and ‘vital forces’.
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