The next big idea

Twenty-odd years ago, just at the time that this magazine started up, the big thing in smallholder farming was giant garlic. To make your fortune you bought a bag of seed garlic (at some considerable cost) dug up a patch of land, stuck the stuff in the ground, added some manure, watered it copiously ~ and watched your profits growing daily.

Well, that was the idea. The problem was that giant garlic wasn’t garlic at all. At best it was a very mild garlic substitute, at worst not much more than a very smelly onion. As a result, the greatly hyped-up so-called demand for this culinary miracle never materialised, and many smallholders lost thousands.

Also in the early years of this magazine, another “revolutionary” big idea in small farming innovation was launched. The boffins at one of the seed companies lit upon the idea of cutting out the eyes of seed potatoes, encasing them in a nutritious coating and selling them as “sowtatoes”, ie potato seed that could be sown by a seed planter and didn’t require the grower to bury a whole seed potato. What a saving in transport and storage costs! What convenience in being able to use a conventional seed planter, instead of a specialist tuber planter! Indeed, a great idea.

We all bought packets of the wonder seed, and sowed away. And found ourselves spending the summer watering and weeding barren potato patches.

More recently than that, if you’d bought into the notions of the permaculture movement, you would have read the founder of the movement, the late Bill Mollison, expounding on the value of the tagasaste tree. This small leguminous tree, Mollison maintained, provided excellent nutrition to livestock, was hardy, quick-growing, and a real life-saver in areas of little rainfall.

In South Africa, it was introduced as tree lucerne, and was punted widely as the answer to just about everybody’s fodder needs. Again, you bought tree lucerne seed, or saplings, at some considerable expense, and hoped that after a couple of years your livestock nutrition needs would be taken care of, and your fortune would be secured. Yeah, right. While it has some application in marginal summer-rainfall regions it proved another flop on the highveld.

More recently, the answer to livestock farmers’ needs was extolled as Russian Grass and, even more recently still, various species of Brazilian grass.

Notwithstanding the obvious differences between Russia or Brazil and South Africa in terms of climate, soil composition and rainfall, may I please be forgiven if I express a minor concern about the importation of yet more South American invader species? It was South America, after all, that blessed us with cosmos, blackjack and khakibos (among many other weeds) thanks to the British Army importing fodder from that continent with which to feed their horses during the Anglo-Boer War.

But if you are worried about putting seed, alien or otherwise, into the ground, there’s another way to make your fortune. Grow barley fodder. All you need is an air-conditioned room, some lights, trays, sprayers and seed, which needs to be top-quality food-grade barley, not the chemically-treated seed one would normally plant. Get the ratio between light, air, water and heat right and after seven days you have a thick and nutritious mat of sprouts that is devoured with relish by everything from a chicken to an elephant, and can even be mushed up to provide a green, grass-flavoured health drink for humans.

Get the ratio wrong and you have a mouldy mess that will kill your livestock and even your compost heap.
All of this came to mind this month after we dug up a turmeric plant we’d planted two years ago, which yielded an astonishing 7,5kg of turmeric root growing in an area of about a square metre. “There must be money in this,” I muttered, as I sorted through the root, separating the big pieces from the fiddly bits and cleaning the best stuff. That brought the yield down to 3,5kg. Still not bad if the price is right. So I checked the price on the Joburg market. Yes, even at 3,5kg per square metre there’s money in fresh turmeric. The only problem is that the demand for fresh turmeric isn’t exactly huge in South Africa. Not even Indian chefs are keen to spend hours (literally) peeling and drying the stuff for use. They’d rather use already dried and powdered turmeric imported from India. Anybody interested in 3,5kg of clean, top-quality fresh turmeric root?

So, back to the drawing board ~ my fortune is not yet secure. But never mind, there’s a new big idea that will make us all rich: It’s Moringa. Good luck!