As I take a seat next to Amelie Guyot-Staal and Ronald Staal at the breakfast table, they are already in the heat of their morning business meeting. Sipping on coffee, Amelie peruses her agenda for the day’s tasks: seedlings have to be planted, boxes must be delivered, local restaurants have to be contacted... Over the past year, my partner, Vincent Young, and I have been exploring various organic farms, and most recently, we have been involved with Ronald and Amelie’s project. The couple runs an urban market garden, Pinelands Market Garden, out of their backyard in the suburbs of Cape Town. Yet, for an environmentally oriented, home-run start up in South Africa, they are remarkably professional. Clean-cut and business-minded, they do not fit the mould that, based on my past encounters, I had come to associate with organic farmers. While my time spent at Pinelands Market Garden taught me the basics of urban market gardening, perhaps more importantly, it also had me questioning my pre-conceptions about what it means to be a farmer.
Pinelands Market Garden bridges the world of business and that of agrarian simplicity – two spheres I had come to perceive as being at odds. But, I am not the only one to have been caught off guard. In South Africa, starting an urban market gardening business is out of the ordinary. In fact, Pinelands Market Garden is the first and only market gardening project in South Africa that advertises itself as such. The local agricultural industry, much like the US’s, is dominated by conventional agricultural practices, including rampant use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, GMO crops and monocultures. Moreover, stereotypes about agriculture are strong – for many South Africans, farming still conjures images of heavy machinery, large expanses of land, and employing low skilled labour. Here, the idea of growing food on a small plot of land is unconventional.
With its focus on small-scale, organic, bio-intensive growing, Amelie and Ronald’s business presents an alternative to standard South African agriculture. Pinelands Market Garden operates out of their backyard in the suburbs of Cape Town, where they have managed to turn the 300 m2 garden space surrounding their home into a hot-spot for growing fresh, organic vegetables. From the street, the house blends into its suburban setting. But, just inside the fence, is a miniature haven of edible plants – lettuces, spring onions, herbs, granadillas, etc. – and even a small chicken coop. They hope to make an example out of their business, proving that their approach to food production is both possible and profitable.
Lettuce growing undercover in the side garden
Market gardening, which basically involves growing food intensively on small plots of land, has its roots in 20th century Paris, where market owners developed the system in order to produce and supply city-dwellers with fresh vegetables year-round. Recently, the concept has been gaining popularity in North America and Europe as people like Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier as well as Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer have proved it to be an economically sustainable form of self-employment. Having both been raised in Europe, Amelie and Ronald were exposed to these ideas, and inspired, they decided to test it out for themselves in South Africa.
While Amelie and Ronald hope to exemplify that market gardening is a reliable source of income, they also hope to show that the job itself is a challenging and rewarding career choice. Watching them go about their work, the job hardly looks dull. Their daily tasks are varied, some being physical, others involving aesthetic skills and many requiring calculated planning. Most importantly, however, they are involved in every single aspect of the business, from planning, to growing, to transporting, to marketing and even accounting. Not only do they have multi-disciplinary skills, but they also get the satisfaction that comes from seeing a project through from start to finish. And even though Amelie and Ronald are educated, neither of them has a background in farming (although with Ronald’s landscaping experience and Amelie’s education in sustainable development, they make a good team). They have learnt most of what they know about farming from books and experimentation. In fact, the couple hopes to one day write a manual on market gardening in South Africa, so that others can learn from their example.
Ronald and Amelie in the side garden
One of the key aspects of making their business economical, they explain, is using garden space efficiently and intelligently, so that they can reap as much produce from the land as possible. That’s why they focus on producing greens, salads and micro-greens since these crops are best suited to small, urban spaces. And indeed, their garden produces enough to fill a weekly, pre-ordered box of seasonal vegetables that they supply to local customers. They also have enough to sell at a local market on Saturday mornings.
However, the learning curve has been steep. Having started out using models developed in Northern climates, the couple soon found that they had to make adjustments better suited to South African conditions. Firstly, the climate allows for growing year-round, which makes crop planning and rest periods based on Northern models impractical. Further, Cape Town’s summers are hot and dry, with the hottest days reaching temperatures near forty degrees Celsius. Drought is also common during this time, considering that summer rainfall is minimal from November to April. To top it off, the area surrounding Cape Town is renowned for its poor, incredibly sandy soils.
“We spent two years just making compost,” recalls Amelie, laughing, “We ripped out all the lawns and had big mounds of compost under tarps. Our neighbours must have thought we were crazy.” Even still, they have to add compost to their soils regularly.
Perhaps the bigger struggle, however, is the water shortages that they often face. The past two years have seen the lowest rainfall on record and, as of March 17, 2017, Cape Town has only 100 days of water left. While the city’s water supply has been dwindling, water regulations have been increasing. Recently, water restrictions were raised to level 3B, which means that Amelie and Ronald are only allowed to use their irrigation on Tuesdays and Saturdays before 9 am or after 6 pm. Although they have a municipal water usage exemption for their business, the cost of water during the dry season is high. Seeing as market gardening has been modelled in areas with plentiful water, adapting the business model to drought has been crucial. Ronald and Amelie essentially have to plan for three months without water every year. That’s why they have installed rain water storage tanks. During the winter months, they are able to capture and store 30 000 L of rain water, which they can later use when the city starts to run dry. They also try to plant drought-resistant vegetables, all while educating their customers on how to eat according to the seasons.
The water storgae tanks
“Growing cucumbers or swiss chard uses much more water than growing African spinach and pumpkin,” explains Amelie. “Eating local also means eating within the means of what makes sense to produce in a dry, summer climate.”
Going forward, Ronald and Amelie plan on potentially expanding to new gardens in the Cape Town area with better access to natural water sources. They have also toyed with the idea of building an aquaponics system, which would help them store even more water.
So far, developing a business model that makes sense and creating an effective garden space for their project has cost Amelie and Ronald both time and money. They have had to invest in start-up costs, including building supplies, compost, irrigation systems, water tanks, refrigerators, tools and many more. However, being in South Africa, they have faced minimal regulatory barriers compared to start-ups in other countries. So far, they only had to file for their municipal water exemption and occasionally deal with border control when they choose to import organic seeds from overseas.
The husband-wife team is hopeful that business will pick up quickly. Neighbours, family and friends have been supportive, and the business has a steadily growing base of regular customers. In the meantime, Amelie continues to work part-time to supplement their income. They have also renovated a section of their house into a self-catering unit, which they rent out to visitors, seeing it as a way to boost interest in their project and meet like-minded people. This year, which will be their second actually selling produce, Amelie and Ronald predict to break even.
It seems that the promising economic side of Amelie and Ronald’s project is growing just as steadily as the lettuces in the garden. To me, their backyard is an example that perhaps the future of environmentally sound food production is actually tied to smart business, rather than apart from it. I am certainly glad to have come across Pinelands Market Garden in my exploration of food production, and I hope to see both the garden and the business thrive.
Photos ©Julian Emdon