At Harvest of Hope, we try very hard to provide an ethically and environmentally conscious alternative to the supermarket and connect our farmers to the customer, shortening the supply chain and providing income security to Cape Flats micro-farmers, all whilst providing Harvest of Hope members with fresh, chemical-free vegetables!
As consumers, large-scale commercial agriculture has left us with an unrealistic expectation and unrealistic demands. In truth, small-scale agriculture is not a perfect system – occasionally there are crop failures, pest infestations and sometimes an irrigation system may fail.
As well as buying produce from the Abalimi developing farmer group (read more about our farmer devlopment chain here), we need to supplement our harvest with produce from other local, more established, peri-urban farmers within the Philippi Horticultural Area. An average Harvest of Hope vegetable box is made up of 60% Abalimi produce, with the remaining 40% outsourced. It is our end-goal to provide Harvest of Hope customers with 90% of vegetables grown by the Abalimi farmers and 10% outsourced for variety, eg: eggs, mushrooms, bread. Currently, as our farmers are largely at subsistence level, we contract out to farmers like Skye Fehlmann of Naturally Organic and Eric Swarts.
Eric Swarts, an emerging farmer, grows organic vegetables on his 10 hectare farm in Stellenbosch, which are a weekly feature of the Harvest of Hope’s vegetable box and we buy green beans, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower.
He grew up on a farm, the son of a farm manager, and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a diploma in Agriculture and working on various commercial food farms in the Western Cape. However, it was during the last two years of his experience that Eric decided to move away from commercial farming and the intensive chemical processes it employs, to focus on organic food production.
“I want to know that the food I’m selling to the customers is only going to make them healthy not make them sick.”
In 1999, at the height of Eric’s disillusion with the commercial agriculture industry, Spier and the Sustainability Institute joined forces to launch a program, Go Organic at Spier, that supported young, emerging farmers looking to gain experience and expertise in organic food farming. The five emerging farmers embarked on a training course whilst also managing the 100 hectares of land Spier set aside for the project.
Hard working organic farmer partners – the red wrigglers!
At the end of the Go Organic project, four out of five of the trainee farmers decided to return to the commercial agriculture sphere but Eric’s enthusiasm for organic farming intensified. In 2002, Eric seized the opportunity to continue farming on 10 hectares of Spier’s privately leased land. His first growing season was a difficult one as he learned that it’s not always feasible to directly apply large-scale methods to a small-scale project. He poured all of his available funds into the farm – initially selling to Dew Crisp, wholesalers to the supermarkets like Pick n’ Pay and Woolworths and a few smaller clients, as a certified organic farmer.
After a few tough growing seasons, Eric found there was still a lot to learn about overcoming the challenges of organic farming. With support from Spier and The Sustainability Institute, Eric visited a number of small scale organic farms in southern India in 2004 in order to learn their methods. It was in India where he learnt the meaning of ‘working with what you have available.’
An effective practice is the art of mixing cow dung and urine with molasses to create a liquid manure for the soil. He places measured amounts of dung, urine, water and molasses in containers, where it is left to ferment for 10 – 14 days. The resulting liquid is then applied to crops once a week. It’s techniques like these, that work within nature’s boundaries, that help Eric to coax his land back to health and vitality.
Labour is one of the greatest challenges facing the productivity of Eric’s farm, “you can have everything needed for the land to do anything, but if you can’t afford labour you can’t do anything.” During the summer season Eric employs four casual workers and uses his six Nguni oxen for seedbed preparation and ploughing the fields.
Nguni oxen pulling a harrow through the fields
Over the past ten years, Eric has endured a great deal of trial and error and his processes have undergone much evaluation and change. Initially, he paid for organic certification as part of his agreement with his clients – however, as the increase in the cost of certification over the years was not matched by an increase in the price of vegetables, he was forced to forego organic certification – although he’s determined to stay with organic processes. His seed is sourced partly from his own plants and partly from commercial seed retailers (the seed is washed prior to sowing) – “The big companies are not so interested in selling organic seed and if they do, it’s 3 to 5 times the price of their standard. Availability of organic seed is also hugely limited in terms of variety and not all varieties work in our soil.”
As part of his involvement with The Green Road (an initiative that ensures continued production of good quality natural and organic food by committed farmers who are both joint owners of the supply chain and committed consumers ) Eric has been involved in a new volunteer-led certification process – the Participatory Guarantee System of organic certification/guarantee for small growers/farmers. The PGS system requires that consumers and producers participate in the guarantee process of each farm – offering emerging farmers an alternative to costly organic certification.
At Harvest of Hope, supporting farmers like Eric is extremely important and his produce is a valuable addition to our weekly vegetable boxes. Eric’s perseverance and consequent success act as a great force of inspiration for the future of organic farming and other emerging farmers.
Just a ten-minute drive from Abalimi/Harvest of Hope’s HQ in Philippi is Gumtree Farm – from which Skye Fehlmann’s organic produce originates. Skye’s produce reaches consumers under the name of ‘Naturally Organic’ – a name that reflects his desire to bring organic to the people.
Six years ago, with no formal training under his belt (lest growing up on a wine farm can be seen as training), Skye decided to start growing high-quality, affordable organic vegetables – an endeavour to dispel common conception that organic farming is neither realistic nor economically viable. Skye’s farm is based in Philippi, an area that until recently was protected as agricultural land-use but now risks threat from encroaching commercial development. Skye stresses the importance of protecting Philippi’s farmland, “we should see it as a national heritage site, these farms feed approximately a quarter of Cape Town – to me, that’s food security.”
Welcome to Gumtree!
Skye acts as a certified organic wholesaler of an array of vegetables, herbs and fruit and Harvest of Hope is just one of a handful of clients. Our relationship with Skye is invaluable, not only owing to his produce and his understanding, but his commitment to sharing knowledge with Abalimi farmers – giving workshops on optimum composting techniques, the importance of feeding the soil and best-practice watering processes.
The compost heap is the bed rock of Gumtree Farm’s success
Skye’s produce is grown from open-pollinated seed and in order to comply with the organic certification this seed is washed before it is sown. It is not commercially feasible to purchase organic seeds for 10 times the price of its open-pollinated equivalent.
Gumtree Farm prides itself on its relationship with its staff, most of whom have worked on the farm since the beginning. It is with the help of his employees that Gumtree Farm has been able to flourish into Naturally Organic and widen its reach. Furthermore, Skye finds pleasure in knowing that his work is benefiting the planet and its people rather than harming it. In line with Harvest of Hope’s ethos, Skye believes the source of change lies with the consumer and urges everyone to ask questions and to remember that in most cases, when produce is cheap, “you may be saving a buck, but the repercussions to the farmer and the environment are huge.”