By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
Last Saturday, we heard a cheerful toot outside our gate and emerged to see a bakkie vanishing down the road. On the pavement outside was a box.
Poking out of it was a bouquet of cheerful garden flowers (a few late roses, chrysanthemums, and the like) along with a double bunch of spinach. Deeper inside was a pack of lettuce, some non-standard tomatoes, a butternut, an aubergine, a bushel of beans, three green peppers, three slices of boerpampoen, a clutch of shallots, two medium cabbages, three fat bulbs of garlic, some fresh thyme and mint, a brown paper bag with a crusty loaf of fresh bread, and six eggs.
A treasure, in other words. Especially in a time when every visit to the shops means risking exposure to the dreaded virus.
This was all from Waterval Farm in the Cradock district. The vegetables were from Lani Lombard’s now-famous kitchen garden. The bread was from her oven. And the eggs, with their orange yolks, were from the chickens that scratch around the Waterval werf.
I wasted no time in paying Lani via EFT for the privilege of this splendid offering, and in so doing, became a Farmbox subscriber. Affordable farm-fresh veggies, delivered from the ground to the gate, contact-free, safe and even legal (Lani is now registered as an informal trader). Perfect.
A Good Old Tradition
Chris and I recalled having access to something similar in Johannesburg, when a local farm would deliver whatever was fresh, ripe and ready to eat once a week.
Lani’s Farmbox enterprise is no small thing, and perhaps every platteland town should have such a win-win service – or several. Maybe this pandemic is pushing us back towards a normalisation of agriculture, a time of market gardens and farms (commercial and emerging) that supply what townspeople need? Now seems an excellent time to focus on food security at a local level.
Written in the history books of each platteland town are the records of which particular farms supplied nourishment to its burghers. When Graaff-Reinet was founded in the late 1700s, an already-established farm called Vrede was one of those.
Popular historian and guide David McNaughton told us that Vrede used to supply the town with everything from vegetables and potatoes to milk, eggs and walnuts. Many farms grew wheat and had their own mills. And of course, every sizable backyard had fruit trees and its own kitchen garden, fed via furrow water. Murraysburg had a bylaw that forced every property owner to grow a quince hedge. Food security, bar a terrible harvest, was a given at local level.
It sustained business too. All towns had a market square where most of the commerce took place.
Then along came grocers and general dealers. But even they were somewhat idiosyncratic in small towns.
The Adamis Remember
Chris Adami and his father Peter run the local Saverite store in Cradock. Peter was a retailer back in the time when the townspeople seldom actually went to the grocers. Instead, someone from the shop would come round on certain days to take orders. And then in the afternoon they’d deliver.
Everyone tended to have a grocer or supplier they favoured, says Chris. And there were seldom any brand names. It would be a pinch of this and a bushel of that.
“The Catholics had their favourite grocer, the Presbyterians had theirs, and so did the NG Kerk guys. That all stopped when the big franchises came in.”
Everyone of a certain age still remembers when milk used to be delivered to the front door in cities, usually in two-litre bottles with cream on top, sealed with foil.
In Cradock, that tradition still holds, if you order enough of it. The same goes for free range eggs. These tiny considerations are the elements of magic that bond one to platteland life.
Nuts, Honey, Lamb and Veggies
Japie Marais, listed on my WhatsApp address list as Japie Nut Man, grows, shells and supplies fresh walnuts, which are just being harvested now. I’ve already put in an order. Japie says he’ll drop them over my wall in a week or two, and I’ll pay him a very decent price for them via EFT. Everything is contact-free, as befits these times.
The whole concept of supplying locally and cutting down on fossil fuels seems a whole lot more viable now, says Paul Collett, vice chair of the Cradock District Agricultural Union. He produces Speelmanskop Karoobossie honey, has pioneered a regenerative pecan orchard that is coming along nicely, and could produce grass-fed lambs on order.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for a while – how we farmers can supply some of our harvest direct to the people in our closest towns. It ticks a whole lot of boxes. Seasonal, local food, climate change friendly. If there is enough demand, it could be a win-win situation, where consumers get fresh produce at good prices delivered at or close to their doors, and farmers have a dependable, low risk demand.”
Paul points out that for every rand the consumer pays for food, around 14c gets to the farmer.
“But just above the halfway point lies a bargain for the farmer and the shopper. It means that producing quality and buying it can offer value to both parties.”
Normalising and localising at least some demand and supply would be a welcome lift for farmers who are just starting to recover from the worst drought in human or recorded memory.
“Non-contact town deliveries can work for farmers even in non-virus times,” Paul points out.
And of course, municipalities could also help emerging farmers, buying from them and then distributing to those who need healthy vegetables and farm produce, perhaps via churches.
Ready, Steady, Cook!
The key seems to inject an element of fun into the whole thing. It did not escape Lani’s notice that after her boxes were delivered, some people treated this as a ready-steady-cook experience, and started posting pictures of their haul and the things they cooked with it on social media.
This week she’s taken it a step further. She is collaborating with other farmers and the Lani’s Farmbox now promises to be a lucky packet of edibles. This time the veggies were supplied by Zola James of Hofmeyr. There was De Pekelaar cheese from Paterson, droewors, biltong or kaaswors from Lani’s, and fresh double-thick cream from Littlefields Farm.
“No exchanges. You have to take what you get. Your neighbour might like something that you don’t,” wrote Lani in her WhatsApp broadcast, adding a crazy-faced emoji for fun.
When she and her sister Talita dropped off our box, she mentioned that next week there might be freerange chicken.
“There’s a boervrou I’ve heard of who has a freezer full of chicken that she couldn’t sell before lockdown,” she says thoughtfully.
The coronavirus pandemic has made a good few things clear, and two of those are the importance of farmers and the need to protect our food security.