Without knowing the consequences, some 25 years ago, we embraced the idea that nature was our master (or our mistress, depending on your persuasion) and that, rather than working to beat her, we needed to work in harmony. Our old friend, the world-feted conservationist, Dr Ian Player, once said “Nature has plenty of time; in the end, she will get her way.”
It wasn’t an overnight process, because we needed to educate ourselves into an understanding of how nature works, and to undoing all the things man had done to alter her ways. The harmonisation which followed was part of a realisation that we couldn’t compete with the big money in breeding, and that we had to find other ways of doing things that would provide us with an edge: one of these was to harness the advantages of our environment, our climate and the virtues of our people, and to get the small increments that accrued from each of these, to work to our benefit.
The advent of tractor power and the revolution that flowed after World War II from the conversion of the explosives industry into the fertiliser business, turned the agricultural world on its head, dramatically raising productivity and yields on farms. But this revelation came at the expense of the integrity of soils and the elements of nature that had for so long sustained the natural world. Pulverising soil with mechanical power was a wonderful substitute for the old horse or cattle-drawn plough, and converting the massive explosives manufacturing businesses into makers of fertiliser, was an act of ingenuity of matchless proportions. What few people understood at the time, was the impact this would have on the productive agricultural environment over the next 50 to 60 years, and it’s only now that we’ve come to appreciate the desperate need for us to find a balance between nature and commercial expedience. Soils were being destroyed, and synthetic fertilizer was like a drug.
Most of us that made Summerhill “tick” two decades ago, were lucky in our upbringings. Somewhere inside the lot of us was a “little farmer”, a respect for the environment and a love of animals, and fortunately, there resided in all of us a determination to preserve the sustainability of what we were doing. Getting the mind-set right is always the biggest challenge in circumstances like these, and once that’s done, the rest is about blood, sweat and sacrifice, and a big “dollop” of patience. Reversing the damage of 60 years is not an overnight undertaking, and there is still work to be done.
Let it be said upfront, if we’d not attended to these things, we doubt whether we would have won a single breeder’s championship, let alone nine in a row, given the limits of our resources and the broadly-held belief at the time, that you couldn’t produce a decent racehorse in KwaZulu-Natal. As remarkable as that may be in hindsight (given the fine histories of the old Hartford, Dagbreek, Springvale and Springfield Studs, and not forgetting Politician and Jet Master came from these valleys), that was the prevailing propaganda of the age, and having made our commitment to this region, purging that from the minds of those who would believe it, was as galvanising a force in what’s happened since, as any. We kicked off our programme with the introduction of cattle, aimed principally at the eradication of parasites in both species (the cattle and the horses) and the elimination of biliary-bearing ticks. The symbiosis was easy to see: you only have to visit a game reserve to witness the “glue” between zebras and wildebeest. As a by-product of the cattle, we discovered the benefit of feeding them the stable bedding in winter, and the fact they could re-distribute this on the land as compost. This alerted us to the realisation that in all the hay we put down on the floors of our stables, we had the most bountiful resource imaginable, and so a composting enterprise of mean proportions was born.
We sensitised our minds to the adoption of a more delicate approach to the breaking up of our land for planting, and to the fact that our soils were crying out for a return to their original tilth and crumble. We quickly realised that the health of our soils depended not only on the micro-organisms and the tiny creatures that resided beneath its surface, but also on the metre or so above, and we began to restore the land to its original form, by re-introducing the materials and minerals that had been extracted over the decades. The outcome was not only a reversion to the natural balances which had existed over the ages, but the revitalization aerated the soil as well as significantly improving its capacity for the retention of water, and hence the return of the creatures we see every day.
There was little point in all this if we didn’t deal with our nutrition and our husbandry in the same philosophy. Our feeds division, Vuma, the brainchild of John Slade who broke most moulds here, soon became the first manufacturer of organic or bio-friendly horsefeeds on the planet, and our people led a charge in the way we operate, attracting the attention of some of the leading stud farms of the world.
How often have we heard citizens complaining about the moles in their gardens, and the earthworms and frogs that appear with the onset of the rains and the first signs of spring? Truth is, moles are nature’s natural aerators, earthworms are the sub-soil conveyors of nutrients, and dung beetles are the outward evidence of a healthy, balanced and welcoming environment, just as frogs are. Anything in excess or in absence is a sign of imbalance, and we should see the re-emergence of these little fellows as an act of generosity on the part of nature, rather than a warning (as we often do), that things are not how they should be.
As much as we might like to see a Kikuyu pasture resembling a bowling green, to the modern, educated farmer, a couple of moleheaps are a good sign that all is well, that the environment is kind, but not necessarily soft, and that the Summerhill claim that we are home to the best-nourished horses on the continent, is not just a pipedream.