Both an intrepid idealist and unassuming realist, Johan Reyneke is the pragmatic philosopher-farmer of the industry, widely regarded as one of the first pioneers of organic and biodynamic farming in South Africa. By Johannes Richter
Johan Reyneke greets you with the excitement of someone who can’t wait to show you his world. Caring for his vineyards like Adam must have tended the Garden of Eden – with joy, reverence and wonderment – it’s impossible not to accept his invitation to see the world through his eyes.
With knowledge comes obligation
With no formal viticultural education, Johan’s introduction to the field came when he was looking for a part-time job while doing his master’s degree in environmental ethics. He joined the roving labourers working on wine farms around Stellenbosch and before long he began to notice an alarming disconnect between the theory and practice. “You can’t read one thing in the evening that makes sense and do something completely different during the day,” he says. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
He attended his first organic conference in 2000. It was organised by Nietvoorbij and sponsored by Monsanto. “It was crazy,” he recalls. “Nobody knew how it worked.” After listening to one failed attempt to implement organic farming after another, he walked out. He was determined to try his hand at it himself.
He who lacks the courage to fail, also lacks the courage to succeed
It took some persuading, but Johan’s enthusiasm prevailed and his bank manager eventually agreed to limit his venture to a quarter hectare of Pinotage on the family’s farm. “As with any new enterprise you’re going to make mistakes and there’s a learning curve,” he says. “Start small, figure it out and learn your lessons before scaling up.”
His first attempt backfired spectacularly. “I stopped spraying pesticides and tried doing everything in as an environmentally friendly way as possible. Within six months I had every insect, pest, disease and weed imaginable. They were threatening to clean me out.” He struggled to find someone who could help. The prevailing view was that conventional methods were a necessary evil.
His philosophy professor, Johan Hattingh, referred him to Jean Malherbe who was farming by unconventional means. He was impressed with her neat farm which produced fruit, vegetables, flowers and even milk without chemical intervention. “My dear, you’re organic by neglect and not by design,” she told him. “Your farm is a book. The weeds are letters in this book and you must learn to read again.” She taught him the difference between useful and allelopathic or damaging weeds, and the wisdom of discernment.
A new paradigm
“Organic farming is still farming, just differently,” Johan says. Agriculture has been practised for thousands of years. Unfortunately much of this experience was wiped out in the last century with the introduction of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers. Farmers had to become chemists. But the benefits come at a price which is becoming harder to justify. Doing things differently is seen as threatening or esoteric, but acceptance often just means translating old wisdom into scientific language. Some, like Nicolas Joly in the Loire, enjoy the mystery of it, but many New World winemakers in California and Australia prefer a more scientific approach to biodynamic farming with methods developed by Dr Uwe Hofmann at Geisenheim University paving the way.
“It took me three to four years to fine-tune everything and get the balance right,” Johan says. Some of the methods worked wonderfully, others not at all due to local conditions that differ from those in Europe. It forced him to innovate, often exchanging sophisticated technologies for tractor tyres and ploughshares. It worked.
Building on success
“Suddenly I was farming without diseases and without weeds taking over and without any big losses,” Johan says. His soil had gone from rock hard and drab to dark brown and soft, filled with microbes and structure. Life was literally returning to the farm and he was seeing new species of birds, insects and plants. Not having to fight unyielding soil and harsh chemicals, the vegetation was becoming softer. So were the weeds.
A core principle for Johan is investing in his own value chain. Where organic farming is about sustainability, the goal of biodynamic farming is self-sufficiency. This means taking a long-term view, diversifying around one focus area and doing what’s best for the environment. It can be expensive initially, but his lower yields were becoming more profitable and more resilient. As his vineyards settled into a natural rhythm they required less manipulation. Waste became an asset rather than a liability and the soil, which had become fertile and spongy, retained water much better than before. Less verdant vines meant lower transpiration and less labour. In fact his water usage had halved to the point where he barely felt the drought.
None of this means organic (or biodynamic) farming is a silver bullet. The farmer becomes an integral part of his enterprise. You can’t phone it in. But this is the aspect Johan enjoys most. He’s not just reading from a recipe provided by scientists in some faraway lab; he’s studying the book that’s open right in front of him.
Johan’s passion might seem eccentric or even whimsical, but like Rosa Kruger’s Old Vine Project (a portion of his vineyards are Old Vine certified) his uncompromising efforts have strengthened neglected roots of the industry where old age and bad habits had left it vulnerable. Johan’s work benefits even his most sceptical critics which makes it all the more worthwhile.