Many years ago, when I was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about making a living out of farming, I had the idea of starting an organic veg box scheme. Unfortunately, back then, any budding confidence that I had in my agricultural abilities was eroded by someone that I really respected as a farmer but who, I now realise, should have known better. Not only did he make me doubt my dreams but all the farming ventures that we entered into under his guidance and with my then-partner in the farm ended badly and with us losing money hand over fist. Farming, I concluded, was a mugs’ game.
However, since then I’ve managed to establish a fairly productive organic veg garden and my faith in my green fingers has slowly been restored. We’ve just created an orchard, which I think has every chance of being most fruitful (sorry!). We’ve fenced it, to keep the duiker out, planted a windbreak and brought in water. It’s located on our walking route, so trees are checked and encouraged to grow every day (like Prince Charles, I also believe that plants respond to regular affirmations). We’ve also tilled a section of the fenced field with our new tiller (which performed really well), limed and composted the ground and planted out a 25kg bag (about 500) of Fianna seed potatoes. We’ve also sown early white maize and various squash.
And, knock me over with a feather, Peter has started to take an interest in propagating veg seedlings and is managing to produce an abundance of very healthy veg plants in our little, lean-to greenhouse. Who would’ve thought? Of course, Peter doesn’t do things in half measures, so when propagating he produces enough seedlings to supply the district.
Which brings me to Njabulo and his younger brother, James, who pitched up at our gate almost two years ago desperately seeking Susan (not her real name, but it will do). I knew them because their mother had worked for the parents of my ex-partner in the farm, “Susan”. Her parents built a house on our property shortly after we bought it (from them, as it so happens). Anyway, the boys lived on the farm with their mother until she became too ill to work. She was given notice and they had to leave. The boys were orphaned about a year later (6 years ago) and taken care of by their two aunts. They inherited some money from their father’s pension but when that ran out they came looking for their mother’s previous employers and Susan. Of course they had moved on so they found us instead.
At first, because Njabulo was in his final year of school, our support took the form of keeping them fed; so we bought them monthly groceries, as well as passing on Alex’s old clothes, helping to furnish their house with some of our old Durban furniture and the occasional help with school projects. However, once Njabulo finished school, we felt we couldn’t afford to support an unemployed person so we kind of pulled back. James is taken care of by an aunt who gets a measly state grant and Njabulo needed to get a job, it was as simple as that. But, of course it wasn’t that simple. With the worthless school-leaving certificate that he has, he does not have a hope in hell of getting a job. So we sent him on a computer course at the Midlands Community College. Of course everyone should have a basic knowledge of computers, but he had never worked on a computer before – oh dear god, where is the hope here? He did quite well actually, but it wasn’t really going to help him to get a job, was it? So we looked into the Further Education & Training (FET) courses and the only option open to him was a business course. Our guess was that after 18 months of learning “business management” skills, he would still have a great deal of difficulty getting a job. The lack of imagination when it comes to offering these courses pisses me off immensely.
So to cut a long story short, Kho (our farm worker) took his annual leave and we asked Njabulo to fill in for him. He worked really well in the garden and I suddenly had the thought, what if we could help Njabulo to grow his own veggies. I raised it rather tentatively with him, because it’s very infra dig (sorry, I really couldn’t resist that one) for youngsters to contemplate a future in growing veggies. As I mentioned my idea to him, his face lit up and he told me that recently he had already decided that he couldn’t sit around doing nothing and wanted to start growing vegetables. While he was working for us, his aunt was organising a tractor to plough up the small plot of land next to his house that his parents left him. I took this as a sign!
Occasionally I visit the Saturday morning Karkloof Farmers’ Market, near Howick. A couple of weeks ago I met a very friendly and knowledgeable guy called Rob Symons from Broadleaze Farm who was selling the most wonderful organic spinach, lettuce and rocket at the market. Organic farmers are usually passionate people and very generous about sharing their knowledge, so I took Njabulo to meet Rob and I was not disappointed. He really took the time to talk to him about growing veggies and gave him (and me) some very sound advice:
- You start by getting your soil right – you make your own compost from cattle manure and grass (both of which Njabulo has access to).
- You then grow to feed yourself (for SURVIVAL).
- Once you can grow enough to feed yourself, you can start farming for SUBSISTENCE, which is enough to feed your family as well.
- Only then should one move on to farming for a LIVELIHOOD.
Rob suggested that I contact Paul Duncan from Dovehouse Organics about enrolling Njabulo on an organic vegetable farming course, which I’ve done. At the beginning of September, he started a 3-month internship on the Dovehouse farm, hopefully learning everything there is to know about organic veg farming, including marketing. It’s going to stretch our budget somewhat but for the first time since he appeared out of the blue at our gate looking for a handout, I feel that there is a spark of hope for his future. As the saying goes:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
In the meantime Peter is propagating seedlings like crazy for Njabulo. I don’t know if it is wishful thinking on our part but maybe he can make a living this way. Let’s hope.