SOGA - Sundays Organic Growers Association
SOGA is a team of citrus farmers in the Eastern Cape committed to organic growing. Their holistic philosophies run through all areas of their business, which is a now a thriving export company. They also produce organic citrus juice, sold locally. Certified organic by Ecocert.
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Story by Deni Archer
Images courtesy of SOGA Organic
Painting a different picture
Organic farmers face different challenges to conventional farmers. Done successfully, their farming techniques are more ecologically sustainable, healthy and cost effective in the long term. And they can yield as much produce as a conventional farmer too. However, their produce isn’t always picture perfect and, since the modern consumer has grown accustomed to every orange looking identical, they can’t sell all their primary produce to the conventional market. This means that in order to access export markets, they need to team up with other organic farmers to make up the numbers.
This is what the Sundays Organic Growers Association (SOGA) does. It was formed in 2005 by four committed organic farmers in the Sundays River Valley, Eastern Cape. Initially their citrus fruit was exclusively for export but they’ve now developed enough to have their own processing plant which turns their visually imperfect (but perfectly edible) reject oranges, lemons, mandarins and grapefruit into Not From Concentrate (NFC) organic juice, organic essential oils and organic dried orange peels.
Growing organic knowledge and skills
The group, which has grown to five farmers, implements the highest standard of organic farming principles in their orchards. Veteran organic farmer Keith Finnemore says they are constantly developing their knowledge based on the latest science. SOGA members aim always to “put back into our environment more that we take out” and each farm has also permanently isolated 20% of the land as conservation areas. They’ve developed a soil fertility programme which has improved the quality of their fruit. A critical component of this is their compost which depends on manure from their own herds of organically raised cattle.
The SOGA farmers have each had a unique journey from conventional citrus farming to organic. Keith’s own experience of organophosphate poisoning - complete with hallucinations - was what drove him. As a conventional farmer, Johnny Ferreira, the newest member of the group, witnessed his soils deteriorating in health year after year as he tried in vain (and at ever increasing cost) to save them with chemical fertilizers. He joined SOGA in 2008 and his soils are once again healthy. “I wish I’d known 20 years ago what I know now,” he confides.
And for good reason. After years of farming organically, all the farmers agree that a healthy diversity is returning to their orchards, “we see more earthworms in our soils, our dams are filled with frogs and orchards are alive with the hum of insects and the call of birds.” The evidence is not just anecdotal. A recent trial by Rhodes University showed that up to 90% of the larvae of a serious pest were destroyed by its natural enemies in the ground – no human intervention required.
A holistic approach to farming
Understanding the importance of a closed ecosystem to organic farming, these farmers are now diversifying their production. In addition to their citrus orchards, one farmer organically raises cattle, another sheep, and a third pomegranates, bees and pasture-raised chickens. A fourth is thinking about adding pigs to the mix.
The SOGA guys are reducing their carbon footprint by chipping and composting old orchards instead of burning them, and recycling warm air from refrigeration systems in their processing plant for drying orange peels. They are also planting Jatropha curcao, a plant which they are planning to convert to renewable biodiesel in the future. All this makes their businesses that much more economically sustainable too.
It’s not just about the environment for these farmers - they also take pride in their workers and ensure a high standard of employment, training and benefits for their staff. They have a farm crèche where farm workers’ children are fed nutritional meals and taught basic skills in hygiene and social behaviour free of charge.
Acting globally, and locally
For now most of their fresh fruit is exported, so not really available to the South African market. However, they supply bulk organic juice, essential oils and dried peels to local and international wholesale markets.
The farmers all acknowledge the benefits of working together. While they all manage their own farming operations, coming together to share knowledge, resources, logistics and marketing has been a blessing to both them and their customers worldwide.
SOGA farms are all:
- 100% Organic certified
- Ecocert & NOP certified
- Globalgap and Natures Choice accredited
- Ethical Audit accredited
The organic farming cycle is a holistic system that prizes biodiversity and depends on a living soil system
SOGA farm workers harvest fruit in a chemical-free environment that does not compromise their health
Tobie De Beer - general manager of SOGA Organic
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