A Dutch family in the world’s oldest desert

Up until the 1920´s the lower Swakop River valley in the central Namib Desert in South West Africa used to be a prosperous farming area that supplied fresh fruit and vegetables to ocean liners docking at the harbour of Walvis Bay at the Atlantic coast. Then came the Great Depression and the disastrous floods of the 1934 rain season that washed away much of the fertile alluvial soil deposits. The demise was compounded with the construction in 1976 of the Swakoppoort Dam without sluice gates hundreds of kilometres upstream in the Okahandja area. Since then only the tributary Khan River flooded the lower courses of the ephemeral river in the few good rain seasons that occasionally interrupt the arid climate in South Western Africa. The groundwater has become increasingly brackish since the late 1970´s. Although small farming has never come to a complete standstill during the last decades it is only now that an immigrant Dutch family has helped to bring back life to farming activities along the banks of the Swakop River.

Read the following article in the “Namibian” from 20 October 2006 on how George and Cathy Ellis (and their four children) from the Netherlands have kick-started vegetable farming at the small plot farm Oranje Hoewe on the banks of the river near Swakopmund in the oldest desert of the world:

Delicacies from the Namib Desert


ON the last day of their holiday in Namibia in 2000, the Ellis family bought a plot in the Swakop River with the idea of eventually making a living by farming.

They went back to Holland and sold all their belongings and gave up their house so that they could move to their new home.

George Ellis, a software engineer by profession, had a job offer with a company at Swakopmund but about a month before they were to leave for Namibia the company went bankrupt and he was unemployed before even starting.

However, there was no going back as the container with most of the family's belongings was on a ship heading for Namibia.

So the family came and instead of slowly starting to farm, they started immediately as an income was needed.

Greenhouses were put up and fast-growing crops like cucumbers, baby marrows and tomatoes were planted to get the business off the ground.

Cucumbers take about eight to 10 weeks from being sown to harvest and are thus an ideal fast crop.

Besides the fast-growing crops, slower-growing asparagus was also sown.

It takes about two years before asparagus can be harvested.

"I am amazed that stuff grows in this soil and with this brackish water," said Ellis, who also grows herbs, beetroot, spinach, artichokes, green peppers and sunflowers.

Ellis said there are some major differences between farming in Namibia and in Europe.

In Europe the fields are planted and then mechanically harvested in one go.

In Namibia they are harvested manually and according to need.

In Europe, livestock farmers pay crop farmers to remove the dung from their farms, while Namibian farmers have to pay for the manure.

"Here we take what we can get in manure - horse, camel, chicken and even ostrich," Ellis said.

He imports 'Jiffies' from Europe to sow his seeds in.

wA Jiffy is a flat, biodegradable disc approximately 5 cm in diameter, in which the seed is planted.

Once the Jiffy is put into water it swells up to about 5 cm high, allowing the seed enough space to germinate and form roots.

Once the seedlings are big enough, they are planted into the field together with the Jiffy, which later disintegrates.

This minimises stress on the seedlings, as there is no contact or damage to their fragile root system.

Ellis has also planted lettuce but the strong east wind at the coast keeps destroying the delicate leaves, so he and his workers have built a tunnel which can be covered with plastic sheets when the wind starts blowing.

Besides asparagus, Ellis's cocktail tomatoes are in great demand.

He attributes this to the distinctive flavour of vegetables grown in the brackish water of the Swakop River.

He said tomatoes, in particular, taste better if grown in harsh conditions.

Ellis has planted various crops to test which are better suited for survival in the salty, sandy soil at the coast.

His latest experiment is with sunflowers, which he says seem to be doing well.

Beans, unfortunately, do not like the brackish water, he has found.

Besides selling his vegetables to shops at Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, Mrs Ellis has a fresh-produce stand in front of Photo Studio Behrens at Swakopmund.

Source: http://www.namibian.com.na/

For a view over the farm Oranje Hoewe along the dry river banks please click here for an article that appeared in the German Namibian daily “Allgemeine Zeitung” on July 6, 2006: http://www.az.com.na/index.php?page=...68490&id=16042