For South Africa's ZZ2, It Starts With the Soil

Sustainability Case Study

South Africa’s ZZ2 comes by its iconic status authentically; the company produces around 50 percent of all the tomatoes sold in the country. Owned since its inception by the Van Zyl family, the 100+ year-old business started out farming livestock – the company trademark is a nod to the symbol branded on its cattle. In addition to tomatoes, ZZ2 also grows avocados as well as almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries, dates, mangos, onions, pears and stone fruit.
ZZ2 currently cultivates 3,000 hectares per year, primarily in South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, across most of the country’s southern and central provinces, and into neighboring Namibia. The company employs 9,500 people.

And yet by the late 1990s, ZZ2 was facing a crisis. Its industrial farming practices were increasingly demanding more inputs, while generating declining returns. It would take a profound mind shift to turn the company’s fortunes around. That shift began with a focus on soil health that would expand to an ecosystems approach to use natural resources most efficiently.

Line chart of Tomato Hectares vs. boxes
By steering away from conventional agriculture to farm more in harmony with nature, ZZ2 now produces twice as many boxes of top-graded tomatoes than it did 15 years ago,while cultivating only about 100 more hectares of land. Source: ZZ2

The challenge: Learn to work with nature, not against it

“It was really a question of will the business be able to carry on… it was reaching the point where it was not sustainable anymore,” says Professor Erik Holm, a company director. “It was a necessity to change the way we farm, or we wouldn’t be farming any more. That mind shift opened the door for a lot of thinking. That’s where the journey started.”

Company leaders traveled far and wide looking for possible solutions – to a natural farming center in Thailand, and to organic farms at Oregon State University, for example.

The company’s experimental sandbox ranged from using essential oils to planting herbs between crop rows. The first “keeper” was Effective Microorganisms, a culture of beneficial yeasts and bacteria discovered by Japanese researchers that work together to facilitate the building of healthy, living soil. Research suggests that EM cultures can fertilize soil as well as suppress soil-borne pathogens, decompose organic matter more quickly and increase nutrient availability, among other benefits.

ZZ2’s path involved much trial and error. “It wasn’t a clear process of ‘there’s a problem, let’s solve it.’ It was more a process of ‘let’s play around here and see what works’,” says ZZ2 ecologist Wiam Haddad. “Nothing was too strange or too weird to try out. The stuff that really worked and made an impact stayed, the rest didn’t stay on as a practice.”

The solution: Sustainability begins with the soil

Ultimately, ZZ2 steered away from conventional agriculture to a system that seeks to farm in harmony with nature, which the company calls Natuurboerdery®. ZZ2 describes it as “farming with awareness and sensitivity towards the ever-changing natural and human environment, and adapting to this change with the best efficiency to stay relevant and to prosper.”

Simply put, ZZ2 is using nature as its teacher and inspiration.

Natuurboerdery begins with a focus on soil health – but does not end there.

“It starts with the soil. Without the soil, you can’t produce a healthy, nutritious crop,” says ZZ2 agronomist Bertus Venter. “We saw that by applying compost and other biological products… we managed to kickstart soil health again.”
Ultimately, ZZ2 began applying compost to all of its acreage. Since compost wasn’t readily available in South Africa at the time, the company built its own plant to produce compost from natural waste products. That was a large-scale endeavor, in light of the total acreage that ZZ2 farms.

“We use technology to produce and apply compost at a scale that few organic growers can manage,” the company reports. ZZ2 now also produces its own supplies of Effective Microorganisms in collaboration with its developers.

Compost spreader working
ZZ2’s shift away from conventional agriculture began with a focus on soil health. By applying compost and other biological products to soil, the company was able to kickstart soil health again. Source: ZZ2

Making and applying compost is more expensive than using the usual nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium soil fertilizer, says ecologist Haddad. “But if you do it year after year, you start seeing the value,” he says. “There are benefits that you can’t attach a dollar value to. You get beneficial soil microbes, increased water retention, increased organic matter, more resilience of the plants.”

Haddad likens planting a plant in compost to giving the plant a flu shot – the compost induces systemic resistance to diseases in the plant.

ZZ2 has seen exponential growth in crop yields since moving away from inorganic chemistry to natural remedies. Tomato production per hectare has increased significantly. In 2018-2019, the company produced just under 21 million boxes of tomatoes, up from just over 10 million boxes in 2003-2004 – all while farming only about 100 more hectares today than back then.

“The size [of ZZ2 today] is the result of a mind shift from industrialized farming to high-tech, cutting edge science, combined with nature-friendly farming,” says director Holm.

The takeaway: Think like an ecosystem

Today, ZZ2’s Natuurboerdery initiative has evolved to an ecosystems approach.
“Nowadays, we think very, very broadly. Our focus was initially on soil health, now we’re thinking at a landscape scale,” says Haddad. “We see ourselves as an ecosystem, and take our insights from natural ecosystems. When you look at ecosystems, you see what sustainability is. If you can harness the insights and principles [of an ecosystem], you can use them.”

multiple fields of crops in foreground with mountains in the background
ZZ2 is using nature as its teacher and inspiration.

For example, to produce good, healthy fruit requires not only healthy soil, but also water – so an ecosystems approach requires that the company work to protect the mountain that provides the catchment area that feeds the local river. Similarly, ZZ2 must work to protect the natural landscape from loss of biodiversity and pollution that would affect the overall climate of its growing areas.

ZZ2 director Holm points for inspiration to the millions of consumers living in South African cities and towns who are relying on local agriculture for their life-giving food.

”We strive to produce a nutrient-rich product that at the end of the day benefits our consumer. That’s adding value, we want to add value all the time,” he says. “If we don’t use our best knowledge, our best science, our best tech to support us, they haven’t got a chance.”

“We don’t need to destroy nature in the process, that’s what we believe,” he adds. “Natuurboerdery is the farming of the future – only we are already there.”

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