We don’t often think that food gardens are viable food enterprises. These urban food gardens are often very small, and farmers often have no authority, title or claim on the land, and this land is inevitably degraded by dumping, neglect and misuse. Would we be able to build viable businesses on top of food gardens? There are many reasons to doubt this. For instance, Makhosini and Lerato are farming on a piece of land that is not indicated as anything on the map an ownership of the land is unclear. The land was dumpsite and was cleared by them and members of the wider community and has some potential. The City of Johannesburg has provision for the lease of land to farmers, but we have yet to meet someone who could exploit this byelaw. However, they are taking a risk as the municipality can re-claim this land at any time. In such conditions, we should doubt that a viable enterprise can be created on this land.
Besides this, the “farm” is liable to theft, dumping (again) or development. The way farmers address these challenges is to mobilise the community, but it is still unclear if this would lead to securing the land or new customers. It may create a means for the community to claim the produce before the farmer can sell it. It is becoming abundantly clear that we need to approach these issues in the right way, and also that it is possible to produce enough food from a small garden for it to be viable. We know it would be possible to produce 80kg of “kitchen vegetables” per square metre of land in South Africa. Makhosini and Lerato’s farm, which is 50m * 20m = 1000m2 could thus produce 80 000 kg of vegetables per year. At R 40 a kg, this farm could deliver R 3 200 000.00 per year. This fantastical figure needs to be moderated – packaging, processing costs, and storage for instance is not included, but indicates that a farmer can beat the median wage and perhaps do very well on a small piece of land.
To achieve this kind of production the farm would have to be very well planned and as Linah Moeketsi mentioned, the soil and water would have to be tested first. In fact, we have developed a set of 12 technologies (please see the previous blog) that could enable a small farm to produce significant quantities of produce. This is a requirement and all farmers should expand the use of technologies to achieve this, Our technologies include: a deep trench bed, mulching, beehives, composting, liquid manure, a beautiful name for the garden and a few other things. These technologies are make or break and a farmer has to improve on the “basic” yields that a singular crop can produce, and this points towards the integration of multiple technologies in a small farm. Please note, this needs to be in place before any farmer can consider engaging with the community. Higher yields will release the socio-economic resources for innovation.
How then can we secure the land, and then integrate the community in such a farm so that it is a viable enterprise? In the discussion, we arrived at the following conclusions:
The first thing to do is to create a kind of “social contract” with the community to always deliver food at lower than retail price. This refrain needs to permeate all urban farming and needs to be the base of the “urban farmers” brand. This would enable all urban farmers to command presence in the consumer’s mind gain access to the market. The development of this as a “brand” will establish a baseline for all farmers to strive for (and it is achievable to sell at less than retail price) and enable consumers to rely on this price point. This is how spending patterns will start to change.
This kind of engagement with the community also shows some difference in the logic of a cooperative. We often forget that a cooperative is a kind of enterprise where members receive rewards based-on only their contribution. It is never the case that when one person does well, the whole cooperative can claim this benefit. We also do not distinguish between producer cooperatives and a marketing cooperative, and the many other forms of cooperatives… These things need to be settled before people enter into a cooperative and the dearth of good advice here is indicative of the inappropriateness of a cooperative for urban agricultural development. It simply makes no sense to pool all produce and sell it together, as produce in the urban context needs to be sold as soon as it is harvested and storage just does not make sense. Farmers would do much better if they can harvest and sell immediately, and this value chain will enable the highest quality produce to be sold.
Hence, we need to find an organisational strategy for small farmers that can promote sales of freshly harvested produce, as this has highest nutritional benefit and also does not incur any storage or processing costs. Fresh nutritious food sold directly to the consumer is the unique value proposition urban farmers should be chasing
So my recommendation is that we need to think about how we integrate the community in the food garden if we want to think about “organisation” around a food garden. The integration of the community is thus not only a social strategy to secure the social contract around the price of foods, but it also starts to develop the enterprise as an enterprise that is situated in the community, feeds and is fed by the community. This is the operative principle that should lie behind the development of a food garden as an enterprise. Let’s develop this idea further!
The first point that Linah Moeketsi made is that, even if we do not pay for services like water, we need to price this service. This will bring a business mind to the enterprise, and this is necessary as all resources need to be accounted for and all resources need to be factored into the operations of the farm. This gives a realism to the farm (even if we do not pay for these services) and will enable a farmer to deal with challenges as a business obstacle – that can be overcome – and not as a problem that can be neglected. This will also be necessary if the farmer moves to another site where there is water scarcity. Without accounting for water, there will be no motivation to engage in water-smart production, which will be a requirement in all cases going forward.
The integration of the community becomes very meaningful if we consider the ways we may employ to integrate the community with the garden. This is a lot different than merely saying “the community is involved” as an imprecise articulation of how they are involved will lead them to make extraordinary claims on the farm and this could lead to people picking the food before it is ready to be sold. The basic social contract operative here – that the farmer will deliver less than retail price – is key. This is the benefit that the farmer brings to the community and the farmer must not be led astray in accommodating all kinds of claims from the community. If the community can claim from the farm at any time, the farm will fail. The farmer needs to make a good living, and this is the key to understanding the benefit the farm can have for the community – it can ONLY deliver food at lower than retail price and the majority of the socio-economic impact needs to be conceptualised around this price point. The farmer needs to be strong on this and emphasise that the savings is what she makes possible and the consumer has freedom to decide to do what they want with this saving. Once this is established, we can integrate the community further so the development of the farm further develops the community. Consider following possibilities:
1. Fresh food as good food. The key economic advantage – or the unique value proposition – of the urban farmer as entrepreneur is the delivery of fresh food (at lower than retail price). The farmer has to educate the community on the benefits of her produce, and this marketing must emphasise freshness and nutrition vis-à-vis the price point of the produce. The way to do this, is to organise a “Food Day” where the farmer makes food available as a means to educate the community on what is good nutrition. This marketing/education strategy must secure the benefit of urban farming and local retail sales in the minds of local consumers. This is the beginnings of the development of the enterprise.
2. Once the community knows they can get the best deal from a local farmer, we can expand on this relationship. Every farmer, and an urban farmer, will need fertility. For an urban farmer, urban biowaste can be harvested (and there will be much of this around!) but food waste could be a point of focus. The composting of food waste is very necessary for any urban or local farmer, and the exchange of this valuable food waste to build the compost heap is necessary, as this is the next harvests’ fertility. You need 30% of your farm dedicated to composting, and without this you will fail in year 2 or 3.
3. If people are bringing food waste in exchange for food to the farmer (remember to not discount yourself as the farmer and moderate the discounts that you are able to give) you might as well establish an ancillary enterprise on the farm. People can bring all kinds of recyclable waste to the farm and this has great value. This would push the farmer to re-plan the site and make space for collecting recyclables. This would be a welcome addition to the permaculture design of the farm.
4. The next step, which will lead to many more great things, is the use of technology. To compost food waste will be controversial as we all have a rat problem, and these rats live off our food waste. Bins would have to be modified to compost food waste safely and be rat proof. I drill small holes in ordinary rubbish bins to compost my own food waste, but some rats may eat through this. A metal cage type of bin that can close but allows insects to enter and process the waste, and which also stands on the ground to attract earthworms, is needed. This could go so far as developing a biogas digester and interesting compost bins on site and many have succeeded in building such systems. However, this is an easily solvable problem (we are more clever than rats … right…?) and needs to be solved decisively. Solving this problem will increase social benefit and acceptance (who does not want rats…?) and release the resources necessary to produce at volume.
We now have a situation where food is produced, and sold at below retail price in exchange for food waste. This is made possible by the farmer actively organising engagement opportunities with the community as an education/nutrition/marketing opportunity that gives life to the involvement of the community in the food garden. This is sustained by a technological system of food waste composting technologies, which creates the fertility we need for the farm to be sustainable over time. This all starts with a very smart and selective way of integrating the community into the food enterprise and blending the community on the input and marketing strategy of the food garden.
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