A Sustainable South African Story

Justin Platt says “I was very fortunate to grow up on a farm in the beautiful Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. With no real agricultural experience to speak of, my father left the family printing business in the late 1950s and established us on 500 acres of farmland, a small fry by modern commercial standards but more than enough to build a diversified ‘mixed’ farming operation which included a diverse rotation of cash crops, pasture, sheep, beef and dairy cattle, and a small farm dairy. The KZN Midlands are blessed with excellent soils by Southern African standards, being predominantly dark and well-structured with a low PH, approximately 4% organic matter and high aluminium levels, that required the necessary calcium related remediation. My upbringing on these soils and in this environment laid the foundation for my later focus on improving soil health and regenerative agricultural practices as the keys to farm profitability and sustainability – although I didn’t quite know it at the time!”

After leaving university with a degree in botany and plant pathology, I spent my first five working years in the world of industrial agriculture corporations, where I was involved in testing and marketing new coded fungicides, herbicides and insecticides for well-known multinational chemical companies. The large skull and crossbones on each container were disturbing and the experience convinced me that there must be a better path. Unfortunately, my views were not shared by many at the time. 

Conventional South African agriculture in the early 1990s, like most agricultural industries around the world, was firmly settled onto the treadmill of excessively high inorganic fertiliser applications coupled with a scary cocktail of chemical pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. We could see the harm this approach was causing to our soils, ecosystems and especially farm viability, so with the encouragement and backing of a small group of progressive and innovative growers, we set out to explore opportunities to develop alternative products and solutions with a focus on improved soil health as the foundation for successful and sustainable crop production.

A key turning point in our journey was a 2004 visit by Graeme Sait, a prominent advocate of ‘nutrition farming’ from Australia, who delivered a four-day conference on regenerative and nutrition farming to our audience of growers, researchers and industry members. The response was phenomenal! While this conference and subsequent editions that we ran over the next fifteen years played a crucial role in driving interest for these alternative methods and products we were advocating, our immediate challenge was addressing the lack of infrastructure, expertise and readily available local raw materials required to meet the demand here in South Africa.

Taking off from there, our ongoing focus over the past decade and a half has been on building the capacity and structures required to support the groundswell of growers both in South Africa and around the world who are making the transition to regenerative agriculture. Based on the demand created by a paradigm shift towards regenerating tired and damaged soils, we launched into relatively uncharted waters to develop organic raw materials locally, that would serve to manufacture “soil food’’ products. South Africa is blessed with abundant raw materials all of which require refining and value adding to create purpose-specific products. In many cases, the raw materials we source are natural waste and effluent byproducts from other industries (sugar processing and fish processing to name two), which work beautifully as microbe food. A win for all parties.

Whilst our range of raw materials and registered products form an integral part of a regenerative management program, there are no silver bullets. These, together with the balanced use of microbial products, cover crops, minimum tillage, an animal factor, and a good dose of common sense will contribute to farming profitably and restoring our natural environments in essentially any farming context around the world.

In the end, the success of any grower will be decided by their determination to make the transition! As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

A fundamental pillar of the Regenerative Agriculture community over the past few decades has been knowledge sharing and the free flow of support and ideas. After several years of effort in building our capacity and product range here in South Africa, coupled with a supremely favourable exchange rate, we are excited about the new opportunities presented to us by other agricultural regions, especially the UK. We welcome any advice and input as we undertake this challenge! We also plan to attend Groundswell in June 2022, where we hope to meet as many of you as possible.

About the Author:

Justin Platt founded Zylem in 1990 and is the Managing Director of the business to this day. Based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Zylem is family-owned and operated. Justin’s wife (since 2005) and two sons (since 2021) have joined him in the running of the business. For more information or to get in touch, please see the details below:

W: www.zylemsa.co.za

E: justinp@zylemsa.co.za

L: www.linkedin.com/company/zylem-sa