Isele's holistic management fosters agricultural success

By Honorine Kaze
November - December 2015

Judith Isele (Vice Chairperson: Namibia Organic Association), Stephen Barrow (Standards Committee Coordinator :Namibia Organic Association) and Manjo Krige Smith (Chairperson: Namibia Organic Association)  

Judith Isele is a farmer, entrepreneur and first woman to be crowned Young Farmer of the Year at last month’s Namibian Agricultural Union (NAU)’s 69th annual congress who believes her holistic management approach towards all her farming activities is the factor behind her farm’s success.

Springbockvley farm is situated some 180km southeast of Windhoek in the flat countryside, which sees a yearly rainfall average of 260mm. Here, they farm with indigenous breeds like Nguni cattle, Damara sheep and natural game like oryx, springbok, kudu and warthog.

The farm is furthermore certified as Namibian Organic by the Namibian Organic Association. Springbockvley is subdivided into about 60 camps, ranging from 45 ha to 330 ha, with an average size of 160ha.

The livestock on the farm is run in three herds: the sheep breeding flock of up to 4500 head of indigenous, smallframed, fat-tailed Damara sheep; the cattle breeding herd of up to 450 head of indigenous small-framed Nguni cattle (cows with calves and replacement heifers); and the herd of up to 450 head of oxen, young heifers and old cows together with the small flock of old ewes.

The flock and herds are moved through all camps according to a grazing plan, which takes into consideration the differences in size, quantity and quality of forage in each camp, as well as factors such as different soil conditions, breeding seasons, compulsory vaccinations, weaning, marketing, special treatment of specific areas and problem predator species like the black backed jackal.

In implementing a holistic approach, Isele explains that she makes sure that all her operations and decisions regarding the farm zoom in on economic, ecological and social aspects.

“Applying holistic management means having a decent planning procedure, including a feedback loop of monitoring, controlling and re-planning, if necessary. All decisions are based on the triple bottom-line approach, and thus always include all three aspects. With each holistic decision taken, the three legs need to be equally lengthened.

“Although it might be difficult to execute at first, with time, it is easy to incorporate it into your routine. Note that it also alerts you in case of mismanagement at an earlier stage, and gives you the possibility to rectify the error”, she explains.

Holistic management is a planning system which helps farmers better manage agricultural resources in order to reap sustainable environmental, economic and social benefits. The ‘triple bottom-line’ of benefits can be achieved by maximizing the management of current resources.

Through the holistic management system, Isele, who has been handling the operations of the farm solo since 2011, set an example by turning around her Springbockvely farm by increasing the farm’s profit per hectare over the past few years.

Upon receiving the recognition, Isele credited her win to her late husband. “I cannot believe it. I am so grateful to my deceased husband for having taught me so much, having been so loving and caring and wise, and having provided me with all the opportunities. Furthermore, I am also blessed and humbled and so proud,” she beams.

Currently employing three people, she noted that they are not enough workers at this point, and she intends on finding five more employees.

“Knowing that for years farming was for men, I would note that my employees respect me, although I would say that the respect grew with time when I was still managing the farm with my husband as the male farmers quickly earn the respect of employees. I have been working on the farm for 11 years”, she says.

When it comes to the farmers’ associations and the wider community, she notes that it was a process of mutual openness “for me towards the farming community, and the farming community towards me. I am very grateful for them having embraced me wholeheartedly as one of them”.

Through her win as a young farmer and being the first woman to take the award, Isele hopes to inspire more women to take on farming and to know that they can be successful at it.

Having been born on a small village in southern Germany, she started helping out her friend on her organic farm. With this experience, her passion for nature and agriculture developed so much that she decided to pursue studies in organic farming.

“In choosing my main studies in international agricultural development, my second internship brought me to Namibia, where I fell in love with the country, its people and agriculture”, she explains her journey.

When it comes to organic production, Isele stresses that Namibia is still in the pioneering stage in that sector. “In the current situation as meat producers, we cannot sell any organically-certified products as our farm and livestock is well-certified, but the meat is not [certified] as such. No abattoir and processing facility exists so far which has that certification.

However, it is a totally different picture in organic horticulture. For many farmers, other challenges lie in the production side; [there is] no Urea fertilizer, [there are] no Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs), [there is] restricted allopathic medicine use [and there is a challenge with] decent record-keeping”, she adds.

Furthermore, the organic products’ market is “still small and needs to be established, but the supply is even smaller and thus demand is still outgrowing the supply, especially in meat products. We are very few organic producers to push for a certified abattoir, but we are pushing for that and will succeed with time”, she asserts.

On the marketing side, Isele says she is also part of the Namibian Organic Association, which has been conducting a lot of consumer awareness, but there is still a need to encourage farmers to become organic producers.

Although farming comes with various challenges such as of lack of rain, Isele stresses that one’s attitude will determine whether the challenges can be turned into growth or failure.

“I have realized that one of the main challenges is that it is not easy to find a dedicated [and skilled] agricultural workforce, as many young people get more attracted to the city life. On the other side, dealing with the lack of rain, the approach of holistic management provides all the tools needed to meet the challenges of the climate change situation. This framework builds like a safety net for the farming operation in economic, ecological and social terms for all involved”, she explains.

Looking to the future, her dream is to further increase production through sustainable methods that preserve nature.

“With this healing the earth and [setting] an example for others to know how to obtain profitability by working together with nature”, she highlights.