Soul is more important than coal

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New hope swells

Sunrise over Broadleaze small SWM

Photo by Roger Fanner ( )

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

It has been reported that that this September has shown the highest temperatures recorded globally since 1880, when records began.

This winter has certainly been a harbinger of future climate chaos. For us at Broadleaze Farm it has been a hard winter. It has been one of the driest on record where even some aloes had begun to die.

The wildlife suffered as they could not migrate due to fences, and in consequence we found our irrigated crops overwhelmed by hungry animals.

On top of all this were the fires. The dry and hot conditions were perfect for bush fires. No amount of fire-break maintenance could save the hayfields and forests.

Winter brought other problems such as our municipality trying to discourage agricultural rates rebates in a short-sighted attempt to boost its revenue.

The cost of inputs such as fuel and labour seemed to be on an inexorable upward slope.

After all this doom and gloom what does Spring portend for us?

The other day I took a walk out to the herb garden in the fine drizzle to pick a bunch of mint.

For the first time my senses were overwhelmed by an aura of greenness. The colour green was very much in evidence, but there was something else. A sense of vitality and growth, both subtle and potent, filled my consciousness.

It was life resurgent, full of promise and hope.

The mint was luscious and fragrant. The stand of tarragon that I had desperately nursed through winter now looked rampant. There was a moist velvet feel to the air and I had the strong feeling of life drinking in the precious water.

The promise of spring is awesome in its unfolding potential of unfurling buds, and of seeds springing to life.

Somehow the travails of winter pale into insignificance as a new hope swells.

Farm routine is now dominated by the imperative to plant and sow. As the grasslands blush with green the wildlife are blessed with plenty, the fields are given a reprieve.

The duiker and reedbuck almost seem to feel the same hope as they move with a certain lightness to their gait. The dam still needs to fill – the rainfall so far is not nearly enough. The municipal woes are still there. Costs have not come down. But somehow everything looks and feels brighter.

Plans are being laid – the anticipation of harvest is infectious and somehow the hard labour is rendered easy. This is how spring should be celebrated, with hope and joy, and anticipation of a bountiful future.

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Keeping gardens healthy

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

2003_1106_050249AAOf all the questions I am asked on the subject of home food gardens the majority are about the health of the plants and how to prevent predators. In this column I will focus on health and leave the subject of unwanted visitors to another.

The philosophy behind organic gardening is based on systems theory. Our definition of a system is a set of interacting components in which the behaviour of the whole set is determined by the sum of the interactions between its components.

A garden is an ecosystem of which we, the gardeners are one of the components. Our gardens are of course subsets of a larger ecosystem – the suburb or countryside. There are other ecosystems that are within our garden such as the soil ecosystem. The health of the plants in the garden are dependent on the balanced interactions between all the components of the garden ecosystem.

The most important component in terms of health is the soil ecosystem. This system has co-evolved with plants to store, distribute and dispense nutrients to them. As in humans and animals, good nutrition is the key to health. It makes sense then in seeking to improve the health of our plants that we focus on the soil.

An old mantra of the organic movement is “feed the soil not the plants”. The soil is rich in life and is probably the most complex ecosystem on Earth. However not all soils are created equal. The basic mineral substrate of the soil can vary according to geographic locality in both its mineral content and in its basic consistency. This is where the organic gardener can exercise her role as an ecosystem component to assess and amend the soil to suit the plant types she wishes to grow.

This may be in the form of rock dusts such as dolomitic lime which can increase the calcium content of our ancient, depleted KwaZulu-Natal soils. These rock dusts will do nothing unless they are acted on by the rich microbial life in the soil.

The soil biota need their own nutrients and this is where the cornerstone of organic farming, composting, comes into its own. Composting is the recycling of nutrients back to the soil – a natural process.

A well made compost is rich in nutrients and is mainly composed of a living community of microbes to further enrich the soil ecosystem. The soil will feed the plants and well-fed plants will have effective immune systems that are more likely to ensure optimum plant health.

There are many other factors that will ensure a healthy garden but this column is too short to include them. What I have described is in contrast with our current industrial mode of thinking. This methodology involves feeding the plants directly and treating the soil as merely a medium to hold them. It ignores the soil ecology and in fact poisons it by the application of chemical salts as fertilisers. When plants with weakened immune systems are attacked by pests and disease we further destroy the ecosystem by applying the pesticides and fungicides. This is not the organic way and although it may at first seem productive, in the long run it is destructive.

Organic gardening may take a little longer, but it will achieve sustained health.

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Entertaining banter about Banting

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

Recently I was honoured to be invited to pianist Christopher Duigan’s annual pop-up dinner event, the Table. Christopher hosted the event at his warm and colourful Mexican styled home in Pietermaritzburg. The guest list included well known chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers and food writers.

By Jonathan Burton

By Jonathan Burton

The Banting diet, as promoted by Prof Tim Noakes, has been very topical lately and in this light Christopher decided that the menu for the evening be based on this controversial diet. Continue reading

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The Ethics Of… Censorship

The Ethics Of

TEO censorship

It is the dark spectre that looms over any debate. The shadow that follows every philosopher, every scientist, every politician, indeed every person who has a strong opinion about anything. It is the awful power that haunts us and beckons us to the dark side of ideology, tempting us with promises of clarity, simplicity and control.

Yet we must resist it, for we know all too well that down that path lays only ruin and despair.

It is the great and terrible phrase:

“Shut up”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve wanted to drop that simple, beautiful phrase, I would never have to work again. To just turn around to the many ignorant, hateful, uneducated Neanderthals I’ve debated over the years (and since I work in the environment field, this has included some truly exceptional idiots), and tell them to shut their mouths… oh the…

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Low-carb, high-fat a low blow

By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears in “Verdant Life“.

I have been at a number of functions lately where talk has drifted to diet,  most particularly to the low carb / high fat (LCHF) diet , also known as the “Tim Noakes” diet. Most on this diet are claiming impressive weight loss and are defending its merits most vociferously. This diet depends heavily on eating meat and particularly animal fat.

It is interesting to look at this diet in the context of sustainable food production and ethical treatment of farm animals. I am not going to go into the human health aspect as that is not my area of expertise. I do however have one observation here. Most people espousing this diet claim rapid weight loss as a justification for its efficacy. I contend that most diets have this characteristic. I lost considerable weight on the “low fat diet”, the opposite of the LCHF diet. Anecdotal observation is a poor source of evidence. Continue reading

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Humane + healthy = sustainable


By Rob Symons

This is an article I wrote for the Mercury Food and Wine supplement and it also appears on “Verdant Life.”

Since a child, one of my favourite dishes has been Chicken peri-peri. Chicken is the main ingredient in most of our favourite meals and their eggs are an essential ingredient in our cuisine. Chicken is ubiquitous in the supermarkets – available in pieces or whole dressed birds, all temptingly wrapped.

Eggs are packaged and labelled with a bewildering range of options. Free range, grain fed, and omega 3 enriched. The labelling evokes images of country life, family farms, sunshine and happiness. This is just a sham. The truth behind chicken farming is disturbing.

The chicken is an omnivore and if allowed to run free is an opportunistic feeder. As anyone who has kept free chickens will know chickens will eat anything from seeds and vegetables to insects. They will even eat snakes, as one of my fowls did the other day. Chickens have always filled a recycling role on the traditional mixed farm. They will keep a farmyard clean, dispose of household waste and keep the insect population in check. They will return this bounteously in the form of meat and eggs. Continue reading

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Can organic feed the world?

By Rob Symons

This is my 41st article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


Whenever I attend a workshop or seminar on food security I always come across this question, “can organic farming feed the world?”. Invariably the question is posed in a mocking tone as if the negative is blindingly obvious. We have become acculturated to the notion that industrial technology will deliver the goods, while the ecological alternative is nothing but a bourgeois feel good affectation. Continue reading

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The seeds of freedom…

By Rob Symons

This is my 40th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life


KwaZulu Natal and the the Eastern Cape are characterised by deep-cut river valleys that flow down to the sea from the mountains. Each valley tends to have its own regional climate and soil conditions. Each valley also has its own unique variety of maize grown by the community who live there.

These varieties are have adapted to the specific conditions found in their valley. They have been selectively bred by the farmers who live there and the seeds have been passed down through generations. These are heirloom seeds and sadly their existence is threatened. Continue reading

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Ecofeminism: Women’s Special Relationship with Nature

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