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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

South African Tea Farmers Adapt to Changing Climate

Air Date: Week of
Rooibos tea farmer Koos Koopman holds up one of the bags the collective uses to ship Fair Trade organic rooibos tea. (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

Rooibos or red bush tea is grown only in the western part of South Africa in the Succulent Karoo, an area with a unique climate and ecosystem. But as climate change starts to make farming more unpredictable, scientists are working with farmers in the region to help them adapt their traditional farming practices to what lies ahead. Living on Earth host Steve Curwood reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. As science was predicting more weather extremes linked to climate change, a group of researchers in South Africa began working with farmers to see if traditional methods might provide resilience for agriculture. Nearly a decade ago, Living on Earth's Eileen Bolinsky and I visited South Africa’s Succulent Karoo, to discover how this unique agricultural area was faring as climate change began to bite.


CURWOOD: It’s daybreak in the far southwestern corner of Africa, a few hours drive north of the Cape of Good Hope. We’re in the wild lands and farming country known as the Succulent Karoo. The broad plateaus look like a desert dotted with shrubs called fynbos, vast and bland except when early spring rains ignite blooms of wildflowers. Like other parts of South Africa, there are many plants here found nowhere else in the world, and with its biting winters and scorching summers, the semi-arid Karoo has a radically different climate from much of the rest of the country. Its unique location and size have attracted scientists looking for evidence of the local impact of global climate change.


CURWOOD: Farmers here grow grains like oats and barley, and raise sheep. This is also the only place where the famous South African rooibos or red bush tea grows. This woody shrub looks much like the many other Fynbos bushes, though a closer look reveals shiny dark green leaves shaped much like the herb rosemary. Traditionally the Khoisan or Bushmen brewed a bright reddish-orange tea from the rooibos leaves. Now, thanks to smooth taste of the tea and its reputation as a promoter of health, the cultivation of rooibos is the biggest cash crop for many farmers here, including Koos Koopman.


KOOS: I grow rooibos tea, and then I make a little bit of small fruits, a little bit of vegetables in the garden...potatoes, carrots, cabbages, oranges, guavas. I don’t plant vegetables for marketing. I want to do it, but I haven’t got enough money yet to do that.

Farmer Koos Koopman in his rooibos tea fields.(Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

CURWOOD: Koos Koopman grew up on this land as the son of a colored farm hand. In the days of apartheid, “colored” was a distinct classification, different from white or black African. Koos’s bronze skin, almond shaped eyes and wiry build suggest that he may well have some Khoisan ancestors. He moved away to the city of Cape Town for three decades, but a few years ago after the end of apartheid he came back to the area. By then he and his brother Barry were in their fifties. They used government assistance to purchase this farm of more than ten square miles from the white farmer who had once employed Koos and his father.

KOOS: I was always thinking of this farm. And so about two years back, I come here one day and he tell me that they got problems. As we sit here in front of the house he ask me, Koos, I want to sell this farm now and I want you to buy this farm.

CURWOOD: So you’re all in this together, this is a family farm?

KOOS: It’s a family farm. Can we go to there…I want to see my…I want to make some soup for us, for lunch time.


KOOS: You know that’s the way I grow up…with my pots on the outside. We bake our own bread, we make everything for ourselves, you know. We try to purchase as little as possible from the shops. And that’s the only way you can survive on the farm.


Mariette van Wyk (Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

CURWOOD: Saving money is especially important when you have a new and high mortgage on your farm. And during the drought of 2003 things were very difficult for Koos - forty to seventy percent of his rooibos plantings withered and died. Cultivated rooibos is his biggest source of cash, but there was a tiny bright spot: during the drought the wild rooibos plants scattered among the brush on his land seemed to hold their own. Like every farmer, Koos knows there can be bad years, but he does feel that the seasons are becoming less predictable. I asked him how they are changing.

KOOS: Sometimes very hot. Sometimes, very cold. I’m not talking about the rain. Cold, and then…snow, like a lot of snow, and it is dry and it burns the plants. And some of the things…when it is wet and the rain fall and it is very cold in the evening, and during the day it gets very hot.


CURWOOD: A few kilometers closer to town in Nieuwoudtville, the family of Mariette and Willem van Wyk has been farming for six generations since their ancestors came from the Netherlands.


CURWOOD: Mariette van Wyk pours me a cup of the naturally caffeine free rooibos tea and tells me that their operation has also been hit hard by the drought of 2003.

VAN WYK: Well, for the past ten years we couldn't complain and then last year came as a total surprise, being so dry. We had one major rain but everything failed.

CURWOOD: Usually they harvest 40 tons of rooibos a year. In 2003, 80 percent of the crop failed. And when it became clear that the magnificent display of spring flowers was also not going to happen, it meant the tourists didn’t come to the bed and breakfast the van Wyks have run for almost two decades. And with nothing growing for forage they could not afford much in the way of rations for their flock of 2000 sheep. Parsing out what little grain they did have to the sheep and recently born lambs proved to be a heartbreaker for Mariette.

VAN WYK: When they see the bakkie or the pickup coming they all run to that because they know it's food. In the commotion every mother loses her lamb. So every morning you will find, umm, 20, maybe less--hopefully less, sheep or little lambs dead around the... And the first time my husband took me out with him I felt like crawling under the bed when I came back, I just couldn't handle all those little dead bodies lying there. If we have good rains for the next two years we hope to recover, umm, in about two to three years.

CURWOOD: So let me ask you this: how much does it seem that the weather is outside the normal range of what it seems to have been all the years that your family has been farming here?

VAN WYK: Um, I am always careful to, ah, say this: people are talking a lot about they don't understand the weather any longer. And it's happening later and later that the winter clothes are coming out.


CURWOOD: On the road along the front of the Suid Bokkeveld Mountains into the town center of Nieuwoudtville rows of cultivated rooibos look dusty and dry in the heat of what locals say should be a cool early winter day. Signs that this could be more than just the odd dry spell have attracted the interest of scientists at the Climate Systems Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town. The science involved is complicated, but the general scientific consensus is that the Earth is warming because of the widespread burning of coal, oil and gas since the Industrial Revolution, as well as the cutting of vast amounts of forests. The El Niño weather pattern that seems to come more and more often with this warming tends to parch this corner of the planet.

ARCHER: One of the climate change projections is that there will be kind of a long term drying out or a reduction, for the broader area, not just for the Suid Bokkeveld but for interior South Africa.

CURWOOD: Dr. Emma Archer is a geographer with the Climate Systems Analysis Group.

ARCHER: A second one which is quite worrying is that there may be an increase in the frequency in what we call dry spells. So a period without rain, which is critical for agriculture, we may be getting more of those. And most importantly, the broad projection, and something which the World Meteorological Association actually put out a brief last year on which they agreed. Whereas people may have been receiving rainfall within a certain range, around a normal value, it seems as though that variability will increase, and so more extreme precipitation events will be experienced.

Dr. Emma Archer (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: Emma Archer is in Nieuwoudtville to get the word out to local farmers that not only should they expect less rain, but they will also get it at different times than they are used to getting it, and it’s time to start planning how to adapt.

CURWOOD: A few years ago a group of rooibos farmers in the Nieuwoudtville area organized themselves into the Heiveld Cooperative, with the help of the Environmental Monitoring Group, an advocacy agency. To boost income, they got their crop certified as organic and developed markets in Europe where the reputed health benefits of rooibos are prized. They are also working on strategies to cope with the effects of long term-drought. Noel Oettle is program manager for the Monitoring Group.

OETTLE: The farmers are quite aware that the climate is getting tougher, that's their perception, and the data is certainly supporting a trend towards drier and - and more extreme climatic events, and there are a number of ways in which they can adapt their practice towards production, which is less likely to be affected by climate.

Noel Oettle of the Environmental Monitoring Group
(Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

CURWOOD: Some growing techniques involve plowing in ways that conserve moisture, and using other plants to block winds that promote drying. And the experience of Koos and other farmers with drought tolerant wild rooibos is prompting some botanical research as to the feasibility of using the wild tea to help adapt to climate change. Rhoda Louw is a graduate student in botany at the University of Cape Town who is conducting a study with farmers of the Heiveld Cooperative.
LOUW: We’re looking at the sustainable harvesting of rooibos wild tea...

CURWOOD: Which is relatively slow-growing, but Rhoda is looking to see if farmers could gather enough of it to make it economically worthwhile.

LOUW: And we were particularly looking at the wild rooibos tea because it’s a strong source of income for the people in Suid Bokkeveld.

CURWOOD: There could be advantages. The cultivated tea that farmers use now can be harvested every year, but it has to be replanted every few years at considerable expense. The wild variety only needs to be carefully harvested by hand where it is found, although it can only be cut every two years.

A cultivated rooibos field, after harvest.
(Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

Rhoda and Emma want to take me on a tour of Rhoda’s experimental plots in Koos’s wild rooibos fields. But first, we decide to try a bit of research on our own: from the perspective of a consumer, me.


LOUW: Would you like some sugar with your tea?

CURWOOD: Oh no thank you, just a little bit of milk.

CURWOOD: If wild rooibos tea is to be successfully marketed it will need to stand up to the flavor of the popular cultivated rooibos. So Noel, Rhoda and Emma give me a taste test…

CURWOOD: OK. Mmmm, this is good.


CURWOOD: This is outstanding.

NOEL: Steve, you get our "wildman from the North" award.


CURWOOD: The cultivated tea is delicious and the wild rooibos tastes great, with a sweet aftertaste like honey.


Koos Koopman and his sheep (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: We’re back on the farm of Koos Koopman to see the wild tea plants that Rhoda Louw is studying. But before we head for the fields, Koos stops to tend his flock of sheep. In case of drought, he says he’s careful to limit the size of his flock; he wouldn’t want them to over-graze and clean out his wild rooibos. He’d like to sell the meat as organic but he’s not on the market yet. Still, he forgoes hormones and antibiotics in favor of traditional herbs to treat any illnesses in the flock. As we wait to drive into the fields, botanist Rhoda Louw explains how she will use the data about wild rooibos she’s gathering at the Koopman Farm.

LOUW: We’re trying to marry the scientific knowledge with the indigenous knowledge, which there is a great body of, and try to integrate that. The final product will not be just the thesis, but also a harvesting manual that will come out of the research based on the results.

Rhoda Louw (Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: What are some of the indicators you are using for your study?

LOUW: One of the research questions is what is the difference between the wild tea and the cultivar.  To measure that, we are looking at the life cycles of the two and comparing them over time. Another experiment is we are trying to see which harvest season gives you the greatest re-growth after a year.


CURWOOD: Climate researcher Emma Archer, Rhoda, and Koos point out some planted tea fields, and various soil conditions, on our way to the wild rooibos. And Rhoda does a bit of translating as Koos slips into Afrikaans.

KOOPMAN [TRANSLATED BY LOUWS]: This is cultivated tea on both sides. This tea is about six years old. And if you look at this patch over here on my left, you’re going to get more moisture here than down below.

ARCHER: Koos is saying there is more rain here because it’s higher elevation.

CURWOOD: But it’s out of the vehicle to see the wild tea, and more than just a short hike.


LOUW: I’m going to take you to some of the sites, to some of the samples in the experiments here…

CURWOOD: Rhoda has about 250 plants in her experiment. The tea bush branches are cut off by hand with a sickle, leaving enough behind so it can keep growing. Farmers already know that the planted or cultivated rooibos might produce for less than a decade. The wild bushes have a longer productive life - and can grow to be 50 years old. The wild tea is also more resistant to pests than its cultivated cousin, although the same pests go after both.

Rhoda Louw measures a rooibos bush.
(Photo: Steve Curwood)

CURWOOD: Can you move wild rooibos...can you move the plant and replant it?

KOOS: That is something I experienced at the moment. I’m busy with it, Rhoda and me, but it don’t work.

CURWOOD: As we walk through the brush we find the experimental plants, we see one that was harvested the previous year in April during and it’s almost dead. Others fared a bit better. And then we come upon a particularly robust rooibos plant, and Rhoda flashes a big smile.

LOUW: This is the July - one of the samples harvested from July.

CURWOOD: So, this is one of your more successful ones?

LOUW: From what I’m seeing, this is the most successful.

CURWOOD: What is the traditional time to cut this?

KOOS: The traditional time is any time from February to April. But look at those ones that were cut in January, February and into March. The experiments of that and the growing of that are much slower than the one of July. So, this is something that I’m working on. Maybe. But there’s one thing; you can’t dry the tea in July month because it needs sun and it is our rainy season -July. And we need sun, no rain, when we harvest the tea and make the tea.


LOUW: So the production factors play a role in when tea gets harvested conventionally. But the tea, from what I’m seeing, the tea is responding to rain events, not season patterns but rain patterns.


CURWOOD: As we leave the experimental plot, the ironies sink in. Wild tea is more resilient than cultivated tea, but it does its best when it is harvested during the rainy season, yet traditional methods of curing the tea must be used when there is no chance of rain.

Windbreaks help prevent soil erosion.
(Photo: Eileen Bolinsky)

Like much good research, this study is raising as many questions as it is answering…for example, what cost-effective techniques could be used to process wild rooibos when it rains? And could timing the harvest according to the rains help the cultivated rooibos, as well? Long established farmers in the region as well as people trying to get started like Koos all share the changing climate of this place, and hopefully all can share in the benefits of the adaptation strategies that farmers, as well as scientists, develop in the coming seasons.


CURWOOD: Meanwhile, Koos is working toward a future that he hopes he can pass on to his children. And he’s confident with his experience and faith and the findings of the researchers, he’ll find a way to survive.

KOOS: Come and see me and we pray for the rain. Come and see me in five years time.

CURWOOD: What happens if it doesn’t rain?

KOOS: Ah, I will never say that it won’t rain. It will rain. God makes summer, winter, spring and everything. You know, that’s one thing that a farmer must have - he must never lose hope.

CURWOOD: South African farmer, Koos Koopman. Well, in the Succulent Karoo seven years on, the wild rooibos and the adaptation strategies have proved their value. Production and exports of organic rooibos have expanded, and researchers there are now turning to traditional methods in collaboration with local livestock farmers to find out how their flocks can cope in the face of hotter summers and less predictable rainfall.



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