The realIPM team recently met with Oom Fritz Breytenbach on his farm, Middelplaas, to discuss his evolving approach to farming, why he uses realIPM’s products and the impact on quality and yield.

As he contemplates his rapidly approaching retirement, Fritz Breytenbach, fondly referred to as Oom Fritz is an unassuming farmer who works the land along the slopes of the unforgiving Robertson hillside in the Western Cape. We recently met Oom Fritz under an enormous sprawling Karee tree (Searsia lancea), on his farm, a place once characterized by a combination of sandy river and shallow shale-like soils, as well as the typical Cape wet, cold winter and hot, dry summers. Today, the seasons are not as predictable and keep Oom Fritz on his toes.

Oom Fritz has been farming in the Wakkerstroom area, just outside Robertson, for over 65 years and still finds his environment pleasantly ‘challenging’, although circumstances outside of his control can make it frustrating at times (loadshedding, diesel prices, etc.) He knows every bit of his farm and has enjoyed adjusting to the nuances of the land as time has gone by. The farm has been in his family since 1910, when Oom Fritz’s grandfather first bought the farm. At the time the farm was underdeveloped and initially the family began working the farm without any additional labor. Over the years the farm has changed; they used to have a dairy and once questioned whether it was worthwhile even farming peaches; however, today yellow peaches, apricots (for juice and canning) together with a variety of wine grapes, are Oom Fritz’ main crops.

Early days

Early in his career, Oom Fritz was forced to take over the farm when his father passed away in 1959. He took the advice of the then advisors of the time and applied farming techniques that included mechanical removal of weeds (disturbing the soil and leaving the soil bare) as well as the application of inorganic fertilizer. However, Oom Fritz began to develop an approach of his own – being an avid reader and philosopher. Together with his brother, they began experimenting with treating their water with ozone, curious to assess the effect of the additional available oxygen in the soil. In his words, Oom Fritz states “From being a hard-arse, I decided to see if the statements from the water treatment company were actually true. Would the ozone treatment really increase nutrient availability?”. This sparked his curiosity into oxygen availability in the soil and Oom Fritz began to investigate the biology of the mycorrhizal network and soil health, and its impact on his plants’ health and yield.

A new approach

As the years went by, they began experimenting with different approaches, such as planting oats in-between trees and big bushes to increase the soil biodiversity and ‘break in’ the soil in order to start farming it. Oom Fritz was also one of the first people in Robertson to have vines which were grown on ‘kappe’. An unusual approach in the Cape, where wine grapes are usually grown on trellises. Oom Fritz decided to rather grow the wine grapes on the y-shaped wooden structures that table grapes are usually grown upon, to increase productivity and yield. In addition, the kappe allow for easier picking, less evaporation of water from the soil and a cooler microclimate under the vine. Today these ‘old fashioned’ vines are still in production and producing premium quality wine!

realIPM also spoke to Carla Pauw, the owner and winemaker for Saltare, a boutique winery that specialises in Méthode Cap Classique (MCC). Carla buys her chardonnay and pinot noir grapes from Oom Fritz, and she told us why:

‘Oom Fritz’grapes are different! He puts ozone into his water, his soil is healthy due to the abundance of microorganisms and the result is grapes that create a natural balanced wine – fresh and crisp. The nutrient levels are high enough, and therefore I don’t need to add anything to the fermentation process. Oom Fritz’ approach is preventative, working alongside nature, so he never needs to resort to drastic measures. These days I have to put my order in really early to make sure I get some of his grapes’

Each minor adjustment in his farming practice has led Oom Fritz to question traditional methods even more. An opportune visit from Jean Kuiper and the realIPM team revealed an approach he had been contemplating, and wondering about, but hadn’t yet fully undertaken – taking into consideration the basics of plant photosynthesis, Oom Fritz was able to bring about an integrated and holistic approach to his farming methodology. What originally began as a business relationship, with realIPM supplying products to a Oom Fritz, has over the years changed to Oom Fritz becoming a huge advocate for the realIPM’s products and approach.

‘It’s all about photosynthesis’ Oom Fritz states, ‘It’s simple and basic and complex, all at the same time’. He describes the process of photosynthesis, which occurs in the leaves of the plant during the day. At night, the plant draws the nutrients down into the roots as energy for growth, but instead of the plant drawing nutrients back up the plant, it is unable to do so. There are a number of reasons, but one key reason, is the lack of plant available silica, which helps to build the cell walls of the xylem and phloem of the plant. Silica is found in soil, but it is not readily available for plant uptake. NewSil, realIPM’s 100% plant available silica solution, helps plants to:

  •  increase photosynthesis,
  •  increase resistance to biotic and abiotic stress,
  •  manage salinity stress; and,
  • increase the adsorption of other nutrients.

Increased photosynthesis results in more plant sugars, being translocated down to the roots to act as food for the microbes in the soil, which in turn produces nutrients in the soil, making them more available to be taken up by the roots. This natural cycle already exists and works. All a farmer needs to do is support this process, and products like SeaBrix and Newsil do just that.

An integrated approach

To fully support the mechanics of this natural process, Oom Fritz decided to implement an integrated programme that includes Seabrix and NewSil (using four applications during the season) to improve the nutrient quality available in the soil. By maximizing photosynthesis and understanding the importance of correctly timed applications (Seabrix maximises plant growth and contains a broad range of macro and micro trace elements, plant stimulating hormones and enzymes enhancing photosynthesis and brix levels within the plant) and then ensuring the plant can draw the nutrients up into the leaves for photosynthesis (with Newsil), he has been able to yield exceptional quality and quantities of fruit.

Oom Fritz is dedicated to the science of working with natural processes, and closely monitors the health of his farm. In addition, he follows a standard spray program and uses Humates, AminoK, Real Trichoderma and Real Metarhizium, in the soil (which helps to manage potential nematode outbreaks). He also supplements his soil with gypsum, ammonium sulphate and phosphates. When it comes to nitrogen applications, Oom Fritz opts for a light touch by adding very little nitrogen to his soil. He also doesn’t spray herbicides and manages weeds organically.

It all makes cents

One would think that an integrated programme would cost more in terms of input, however, Oom Fritz says not so. He keeps a close eye on the inputs, and even though he farms a low value crop (yellow peaches), his approach, and high yield enable adequate profits. Together with his sought-after chardonnay grapes, Oom Fritz is more than satisfied with his way of farming and continues to improve his knowledge and understanding of natural processes, ‘I have an inquisitive mind’ Oom Fritz tells us, tapping his head, reminding us that at 84, he has a wealth of experience and insight.

As our discussion under the big tree at Oom Fritz’s farm ends, he shares stories of his family’s history, and offers us fresh peaches off the tree. True to his word, the peaches are abundant, huge, tasty and juicy – exactly as you would want, warmed by the sun, ready to eat. The realIPM team have worked with Oom Fritz for a number of years, and the lessons learnt have been reciprocal – we truly have valued his curiosity and enquiring mind which has pushed us to seek answers to his challenges, whilst always working in alignment with natural processes and considering the impact of our actions on the future health of the farm.

Thanks to Oom Fritz for hosting us on his farm on a hot summers day and sharing his peaches with us!