South African retail giant Woolworths’ ‘farming for the future’ initiative is making steady progress, with 68,6% of the company’s fresh produce now being sourced from suppliers working to ensure more sustainable farming practices.
The initiative was a move away from conventional farming methods, and focused on improving soil and plant health, preserving water and soil, and protecting biodiversity.
“Soil and water are two of the most threatened resources in South Africa, and integral to faming, which is why we have to look at farming more holistically,” said Farming for the future technical manager Kobus Pienaar.
By 2012, Woolworths aimed to have all its locally grown fresh produce sourced from farms either using a farming for the future approach, or organic farming. That meant that 85% of the retail group’s fresh produce would be sourced under the farming for the future programme, 6% organic and the 9% balance comprising seasonal imports.
Woolworths began investigating the concept of more sustainable farming in 2007, and by November 2009, 50% of the company’s suppliers were employing ‘farming for the future’ techniques.
The initiative came about as farmers started noticing that the productivity of the soil was declining, and more money was being spent on input costs such as fertiliser and pesticides, to get the same yields. Thus, ways of improving the soil were required.
Farming for the future sought to increase the use of compost and decrease the need for chemical intervention, as well as slow down erosion, and generally ensure the health of the soil.
Customers were also becoming more concerned with environmental issues, and putting pressure on retailers to ensure that they, and their suppliers, followed more sustainable practices.
Farming for the future required commitment from farmers, and farms were independently assessed to ensure that they were employing the practices, and that the soil quality was, in fact, at an optimum.
A farm would be audited to establish its baseline use of farming for the future methods, and to set goals. Woolworths paid the costs of the yearly farm assessments.
The measurements taken into account for farming for the future included: soil mineral management; soil microbe management; pest management; plant management; water management; biodiversity management; and wastewater management.
But different targets were set for different areas of South Africa, owing to the fact that the country had many different micro climates, which demanded soil-specific management programmes.
Pienaar noted that the programme was taking farmers back to basics, and taking stock of the benefits of the ways in which previous generations used to farm.
He noted that while organic farming, or biodynamic farming, had a set of rules in a neatly packaged box, they were often not appropriate for a specific area, and thus farmers needed to decide which crops would grow best in their land with minimal intervention such as fertilisers or pesticides.