News / Africa

    S. African Farmer Goes From 'Voice in the Wilderness' to Sought-After Expert

    Margaret Roberts, one of South Africa's first truly organic food producers, in a garden on her farm in the country's North West Province
    Margaret Roberts, one of South Africa's first truly organic food producers, in a garden on her farm in the country's North West Province
    Darren Taylor

    On Margaret Roberts' farm, ears fill with the sounds of singing birds and buzzing cicadas, eyes are assailed with a kaleidoscope of color, from blood red roses to snow white lilies… noses tingle with aromas of herbs and fruits.

    Roberts is a stylish, refined lady in her mid-70s. She started her farm here, at De Wildt in South Africa's North West Province, 31 years ago. 

    "It was the only land I could afford, because it was just raw mountainside and a few derelict buildings. To create this oasis in the middle of these very dry mountains has been the greatest achievement of my life," she says.

    "It is a most amazing journey that I've had against these hot slopes. I was forced into this area; I never would have chosen it because it has so little water; there's no river nearby…"

    Yet water bubbles from fountains on her land.  Roberts established South Africa's first truly organic estate by collecting and harvesting rainwater. 

    "I have my suppliers tell me I'm the only farmer with 93 five thousand liter tanks and… three 10,000 liter tanks. And through this I am able to do this growing of the herbs and growing of the food plants. And I do it with such a passion, that I think it's more the passion that keeps us going than anything else," she says.

    Margaret Roberts has been an organic farmer for more than 50 years.

    She's respected internationally as one of the first proponents of organic farming.

    To define the principle of ‘organic' is simple, says Roberts.

    "It means that no spray or fertilizer of any chemical description whatsoever has ever been used here," she says.

    The Roberts farm offers an extremely colorful experience, with the farmer growing a vast variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers and trees.
    The Roberts farm offers an extremely colorful experience, with the farmer growing a vast variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers and trees.

    Rebel with a cause

    In the 1970s and 1980s new synthetic pesticides and fertilizers swept global agriculture and were credited with sparking mass food production.

    This is exactly when Roberts rebelled against the new technologies. She believed they were bad for the environment, and ultimately bad for people's health.

    "My passion was triggered when a person close to me became seriously ill. He got better soon after I started feeding him natural, non-processed, preservative-free foods that I knew hasn't been produced by any artificial means; food that hadn't been produced with pesticides," she explains.

    Roberts says many in agriculture at the time condemned her "crusade" for organic food. She describes herself as a "voice in the wilderness" at the time.

    "Their voices were so loud and I felt so insignificant at times. I used to think, what am I doing? I think I was South Africa's first organic farmer. I would use nothing that wasn't organic seed… I fought for that alone, alone. They laughed at me and thought I was completely mad." 

    Now, decades later, Roberts is hailed as an agricultural visionary… And growing numbers of farmers in South Africa, and around the world, are rejecting pesticides and other chemicals to produce food naturally.    

    Some of Roberts's huge organic cabbages.
    Some of Roberts's huge organic cabbages.

    Crops from all over the world

    Roberts walks a stony path and points to a bushy plant with tiny, tear-shaped leaves and bright green pods.

    She says organic chickpeas contain many nutrients essential to human health.

    "(It's) one of the easy crops to grow, and it's probably one of the most unbelievably perfect foods. But not out of a tin! And not bought processed and mashed into stuff, but growing your own."

    Roberts has authored more than 40 books on subjects like organic farming, urban agriculture, herbs and ‘superfoods.' 

    "I have nine books left in me but I wonder if I have enough time left to write them?" she asks, smiling. 

    The Roberts farm abounds with edible crops.

    "I've got the most amazing squashes that are an arm-length, now, and that are as delicious as a butternut!" she exclaims.

    She also cultivates exotic plants, like sapotes, a tropical fruit from Peru, and jelly palms.  

    One of her favorites is stevia, a vine-like plant with sharp leaves, the extract from which is sweeter than sugar and far healthier.

    Roberts comments, "We are now producing sweet and delicious things using this plant. It is like a kind of a mushroom that grows with great speed, filled with nourishment."

    Roberts also makes products like this syrup, from naturally grown vanilla an the sweet leaves of the Stevia plant.
    Roberts also makes products like this syrup, from naturally grown vanilla an the sweet leaves of the Stevia plant.

    Jabotica juice

    Robert's daughter, Sandy, a chef, uses ingredients from her mother's farm to create a variety of dishes, from stews to ice creams.

    "As we're going through the seasons we are using very unusual plants," Sandy explains. "We are using the jaboticabas, which grow on a stem; it looks like big, black grapes, or marbles, all the way along the stem of a plant. When you harvest this, one can put it into a pot and boil it up and make the most exquisite juices."

    Sandy stirs a ladle through a scarlet broth; outside her mother's long fingers rustle through dry herb plants.

    Margaret Roberts maintains there's no longer a need for farmers to use pesticides on crops, because it's now known that sprays to protect them from insects can be made cheaply from natural plants everywhere, like South Africa's khaki bush.

    Roberts has authored more than 40 books on a variety of agricultural subjects including organic food production, and says she plans several more.
    Roberts has authored more than 40 books on a variety of agricultural subjects including organic food production, and says she plans several more.

    Onwards to global food security

    When VOA visited her, Roberts was surrounded by small-scale farmers from as far afield as New Zealand and Denmark, all wanting to learn from her, to explore her world-renowned store of rare seeds, to hear her thoughts on the world's next popular organic food crop.

    She says whenever people visit her she encourages them to become part of an "organic revolution."

    "I'm a great age now and I really can't believe that I'm still doing this kind of thing, and I'm still teaching it. And I'll do it until the day I can't talk anymore, because it's the most important thing of our lives," Roberts emphasizes.

    "No matter the size of the ground we've got, even if it is a few pots, we can make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, by growing organically-produced seed… and collecting rain."

    Roberts maintains this is the "path towards global food security and healthy food," not genetic modification of seeds and increased use of pesticides and other chemicals. 

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