The Secrets of the Soil – a presentation by Probio’s Rupert van der Merwe at the 2015 SKOG Day

At the recent 2015 SKOG Day, Rupert van der Merwe was invited to present on behalf of Probio. He joined other speakers on the programme, including:

Dr Kobus van der Walt (from RSG) who gave a presentation titled “Farming is a changing environment”;

Dr Johan Labuschagne, who spoke about the effect of tillage and crop rotation on the quality of soil;

Ines Leygonie & Johan van Zyl, who spoke on “Strategic tillage within a conservation system – a sin? ”

During this presentation “The Secrets of the Soil” Rupert shared the personal experiences of his life and career journey. In so doing, he educated the other farmers present on the importance of soil; the difficulty of studying soil; conventional agriculture and soil complexity.

Rupert’s journey to uncovering the secrets of the soil, is as follows:

During serving his country in the army, he woke up one morning and couldn’t move. His experience was that it was arthritis of the whole body. But in fact it was an autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis.

Ankylosing spondylitis is an autoimmune disease and is a type of arthritis of the spine. It causes swelling between your vertebrae, which are the disks that make up your spine, and in the joints between your spine and pelvis. The disease is more common and more severe in men. It often runs in families. Early symptoms include back pain and stiffness. These problems often start in late adolescence or early adulthood. Over time, ankylosing spondylitis can fuse your vertebrae together, limiting movement. Symptoms can worsen or improve or stop altogether. The disease has no cure, but medicines can relieve the pain, swelling and other symptoms. Exercise can also help.

This was life changing and so Rupert opted to change his lifestyle too. He left the city and moved to the countryside where he found a job on a biodynamic farm in Wellington – the first organic farm in South Africa. His focus was on milk and maize.

Rupert lived in a wooden house, worked 7 days a week, got up early hours of the morning and only ate food from the farm. On the farm, they worked hard and only ate twice a day. Rupert noticed that their veggies and food tasted amazing – much better than city food.

Rupert started recovering and put two and two together. He asked himself the question: What’s happening? What’s missing in agriculture?He then decided then to enroll at The University of Stellenbosch and study the soil.

In his final year he presented his findings and proved how soil quality effects yield quality and expectancy with an algorithm that proves the old NPK theory wrong in drought conditions.

The definitions of food and agriculture in his studies state that these should support human health as well as act as a support factor for humans and animals.

What we eat changes our genetics, and the same happens to animals – hence what modifies in animals genetics will do so to our own genetics. Therefore to keep a balanced and healthy system going, we need to start with the soil, which then affects animals, and then us, too.

Rupert shows that over time we can engage management practices and better our soil. An important factor in soil structure is the “glue”.This keeps soil particles together so that it doesn’t erode. We need to understand and manage this cycle, and also look after more than just one cycle i.e. cycle management.

Rupert uses an analogy in which he compares roots with the human gut. They share a lot of similarities, and there is a relationship between microbes in the stomach and in roots. Because the gut is where we get our microbes from, we need to look after this system, and we need to start with the soil. In other words, the soil is the key to our stomach and well-being. Without the microbes in our gut, we would get extremely sick and this would cause autoimmune diseases. The same goes for plant roots, as otherwise plants would get sick.

So it is all related and that’s the secret! The very same microbes that give us health also bring health to soil, and in turn to crops, and then in turn to animals and humans!

Explore these ideas in more detail by viewing Rupert’s slide presentation.