vuma feedSitting down to a meeting of Certified Organics Experts, a Doctor with a PhD in soil nutrition, the head of Summerhill’s Agriculture Department, the VUMA CEO, and Mick Goss ,was akin to being part of one of those complex chemistry lessons that used to so terrify me each Monday and Wednesday afternoon at secondary school.

Micronized lime, acid, buffered soil, phosphate, magnesium, borons, mineral constituents, top dressing, fertilizer, yield, microbes, microbial build-up, weed control, complex proteins, volume, amino acid, energy, production, pH, black urea, coating facilities, potassium phosphate, root systems, water solubility, mineralization, clay, sand, sub soil, sustainability

I confess it is a language at some distance from my thoroughbred pedigree and marketing comfort zone !

Having said that, I actually took a lot more out of last week’s meeting than I did out of one of my early 1980’s lectures. When you can go and stand in a paddock afterwards and run your hands through soil, feed, and look at the animals grazing the pasture you can start to see how it works in concert.  It also made me realize something:  These days we bandy around the terms ‘holistically raised’, ‘organic’ and ‘bio farming’ in conversations, meetings, stud tours, and marketing materials, but how much do people outside the farm actually understand the concepts and what impact they play on the health of their horses?

As Mick Goss stated in the 25th Anniversary Summerhill brochure “No matter one’s personal gifts, knowing your environment and reaching into the well of its strengths takes time. Ours is a richly complex region of the finest natural potential, the mountains, the minerals, the streams, the thunderstorms, the capricious but glorious winters and the skills of the zulus. The convergence of these attributes has created an elegantly sensual animal of powerful and assertive character, but its era as the bellwether of its time is only beginning.”

The role of Summerhill’s 3000 lush acres and rich mineralised soils at the foot of Giant’s Castle, and the agricultural practices that tend to them, are well acknowledged as playing more than a minor role in the Champion Breeder title that has now been bestowed on the farm for two consecutive years.

“We adopted bio-farming principles some years ago and the results have been startling in terms of the bone that we now see on the horses and the runners we are producing off the farm ,” says Summerhill’s Agricultural Manager Barry Watson. “We ceased using herbicides more than 15 months ago, we don’t use acidic based fertlizers, we green compost our crop lands and we compost the heck out of the pastures. This is in addition to managing more than 11 varieties of grasses in pasture improved paddocks plus more than 150 species of natural veldt grasses in other parts of the farm.”  

Last year the decision was made to extend bio-farming principles to a more structured organic perspective.

“My belief in organics stems from seeing the growing incidence of cancers and other medical conditions around the world,” Barry states. “I saw the results of industrial agriculture with my livestock some years back. You see a decline in health and you cannot put your finger on the cause and it appears to be beyond veterinary help as well. You therefore have to start asking yourself the hard questions about soil and what we are doing to it and the grass that grows on it.”

At its essence, organic farming is a form of agriculture which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plant growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. As far as possible organic farmers rely on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control weeds, insects and other pests.

According to the international organic farming organisation IFOAM “The role of organic agriculture, whether in farming, processing, distribution, or consumption, is to sustain and enhance the health of ecosystems and organisms from the smallest in the soil to human beings.”

“The short term benefit to Summerhill of adopting organic principles is a greater number of winners ie. more horses passing the finish line quicker than they have in the past,” says Talborne Organics Principal Mark Meter. “Longer term we will see sustainability and the knowledge that this land can be passed on to future generations”.

The pasture programme Summerhill has committed to is a first of its kind in this country where organics has traditionally been concentrated in high value cropping estates.

“It is a process. You can’t go from inorganic to organic overnight,” reports Dr Arri Van Vuuren. “Summerhill is a long way along the line already due to its bio farming commitment and already has a high organic content to its soils. For a farm that is not certified organic the soil analysis for Natal looks fantastic.”

Soils across the farm are regularly tested. As Barry explains “whichever way we go we have to get the soil chemistry right. It doesn’t just tell you what type of fertilizer to use or how much and what particular areas require more attention that others to complement the composting that has already been done. A microbial build-up does not happen overnight. As with most things you need time.

“The starting point is to get the Ph balance right otherwise your microbial balance and weeds cannot be controlled. Some soils will take 20 tonnes of lime per hectare to turn around and lime effects the Ph. It can take 3 years to get the full results of that.

“Well managed soil will take care of whatever you grow on it so you need to ensure the nutritional balance is right.”

As he speaks it fast becomes apparent the intricate relationship between the ground an animal is born and raised on, and the resultant athlete it produces. It also makes you realize that the organics movement is far more than just a marketing tool.

“We owe this to the country, the people that live here, and the people who come after us,” says Mick. “We are doing it a disservice if we don’t pursue this philosophy. This is not to appease anyone else out there. This is to appease our own consciences.”

A large number of farms across the globe are also looking to organic principles. Whilst industrial agriculture has supported the rapid growth and demands of the world’s population there are worrying signs that the way we currently farm the land may in fact be doing more harm than good.  

As Summerhill’s agricultural manager concludes: “Nature is forgiving to  a point but if you continue to mine it the way many are doing it will cause irreparable damage. At Summerhill, our commitment is to the land and, in conjunction with our breeding and nutrition programme, to produce the best athletes on the African continent.”


The world leaders in organic agriculture are the Cubans. The organic farms that have fed the Cuban people for the past 20 years barely existed in the late 1980s. Back then, Cuba’s economy was extraordinarily reliant on subsidies from its political older brother, the Soviet Union. Its agriculture was designed with one aim in mind -namely to produce as much sugar cane as possible, which the Soviets bought at more than five times the market price, in addition to purchasing 95 percent of its citrus crop and 73 percent of its nickel. In exchange, the Soviets provided Cuba with 63 percent of its food imports and 90 percent of its petrol. Such a relationship made Cuba extraordinarily vulnerable. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, such subsidies halted almost overnight. The effect on Cuba’s subsidized economy was disastrous and the government of Cuba was forced to take radical steps to feed its people. The solution it chose - essentially unprecedented both within the developed and undeveloped world - was to establish a self-sustaining system of agriculture that by necessity was essentially organic.

The results have been stunning both in terms of sustaining a country’s population, and maintaining the health of the land.  There is perhaps a faint irony in the fact that industrial agriculture experts from the first world who are seeing the need to convert to organic principles to save their land and increase yields are now heading to the communist country for instruction.

The last South African census revealed that only 200 farms were certified organic. Another 130 properties are in the process of becoming accredited.