This is my 19th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.
I am writing this column on the first real winters morning. It is seven degrees outside and beautifully crisp. On my daily ritual to open up for the staff I noticed the first patches of frost. We are blessed in this part of Africa in having some of the best winter weather in the world. We seldom have cloud cover for any length of time so most of our days are sunny and warm. There is an exquisite contrast between the bracing temperatures of the night and early morning ,and the balmy sunny daytime.
However, things are not so easy from a farmers point of view. The lower temperatures and the frost affect crop production but not always for the worst. Ironically lettuce grows best in these colder conditions. It is relatively frost resistant and although its growth rate is slower it’s quality improves and it is better tasting and contains more concentrated nutrients. This is ironic because just as lettuce is at its best the demand for it drops. Sales always take a hit in winter. We have been conditioned to think of lettuce and salads as a summer only dish which to me is out of kilter with the reality of life on the KZN coast. The reality is that it is too hot in summer to grow decent lettuce but the coastal temperatures in winter are just fine to enjoy a salad made with lettuce at its best.
One major problem we have at Broadleaze at wintertime is the frequent nocturnal raiding of our crops by the antelope resident on the farm. Being in a summer rainfall area the average veld conditions in winter are dry and this is exacerbated by the frost which kills most of the grazing that the wild antelope feed on. Fields of juicy irrigated lettuce are just too irresistible and the Nyala and Reedbuck will jump most fences to get at them. I had at one time about fourteen Reedbuck in one small field. I have had years where the crops were completely devastated. As an organic farm we are committed to developing a way of farming that is in harmony with nature. This means finding a way to get on with animals who have just as much a right to be here as we do. I cannot believe that the best solution our much vaunted human intelligence can come up with is to shoot them. That is the solution giving by most farmers I speak too. Turning them into biltong* is the easiest solution I suppose, if you are so inclined. There must be other ways and I will find them. In the meantime the easy solution can be tempting as you watch your harvest disappearing.
The last trial of winter I will mention is that of fire. As the Western Cape’s fire season ends ours in KZN starts. As soon as the frost kills the grass the threat of fire looms. It is not a time I feel comfortable being away from the farm at any time and the smell of smoke is enough to get us running to check if any flames are near. The combination of wind and flame is an irresistible force and one can only watch helplessly as the beast devours all in its path. We have had one such fire before and we were lucky to still have a home after it was through. It was a fiery but chilling reminder that for all our ingenuity we are still insignificant before the power of the natural world. I feel the best strategy when face to face with nature is to ride with her and to surf her rhythms rather than to try and dominate her. That is the essence of Organic farming.
* South African dried meat.