As we stepped into our fifth year of the project this March, there is a lot of reflection and gratitude that we sit with, given the grace and opportunity that the Living Soils Community Learning Farm partnership has afforded us: to explore, tackle a lot of big, hairy questions, and face unknowable challenges, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Living Soils Community Learning Farm, a partnership project between Woolworths, Spier and the Sustainability Institute, has been an opportunity to attempt to address a number of socio-economic and environmental challenges within a complex food system. We learned to understand that in order to make a transformative change, solutions aren’t as straightforward and quick as we had initially perceived. Knowing that, and embracing the uncertainty of change, the Living Soils project partners and the team on the ground have committed to valuing the opportunities for reflection, adaptation and growth through learning, collaboration and co-creation.
Apart from all the achievements and milestones, it has been wonderful to also witness the growth of the team, who have worked with a lot of passion and dedication to make Living Soils what it is today. The team of managers and farmers have taken ownership and embody the values of Living Soils by believing in mission and leading the work on the farm. They have also been able to create a welcoming environment and positive work culture that has allowed everyone, visitors included, to feel safe and at home. They truly have brought in the beauty of the human spirit.
Key Highlights up to 2022
The Living Soils Community Learning Farm is a regenerative farming project situated in Lynedoch, Stellenbosch, Western Cape. The farm aims to tackle issues of food security, climate change, soils and biodiversity loss, poverty and unemployment, and agriculture inclusivity in the South African context.
At the end of the three-year pilot period, there was a recognition and a convergence between the various partners to increase the focus on the training aspect of the project, and to develop a more focused learning pathway that would positively impact the skills required in the farming sector, support long-term livelihood security whilst continuing to contribute to local community food security.
Living Soils addresses local food security through a child-centered lens because it is important for children to receive adequate nutrition for proper growth and development. The produce goes to various beneficiaries that include the feeding programme at the Sustainability Institute that provides daily meals to 160 children within the Lynedoch Valley. Almost a third of the total produce harvested have been donated to food insecure households and individuals within the community since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, produce is sold at a subsidized cost to like-minded partners within Stellenbosch that support food security, including Pebbles Project that support children in the Cape Winelands farm worker communities through provision of daily meals; Helping Hands and the Vlottenburg soup kitchen that support families and individuals from the farms and informal settlements in Vlottenburg with Sunday meals; and the Small Things Fund that support food insecure university students in Stellenbosch.
Being based within the Lynedoch Valley, and understanding the need for increased food security amongst families, Living Soils offered workshops to the surrounding community to equip individuals with skills and knowledge to help create more food secure futures for their families and communities. In 2022 we ran a range of workshops with community members from Lynedoch and the broader Stellenbosch, which included Lynedoch households, Backyard Farms women in partnership with Pebbles Project, single mothers from Finding Her Voice, Boschendal Preschool & Vlottenburg Primary School, and ECD and Aftercare centre teachers. The workshops included Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), Community and Teacher Permaculture training.
The aim of these workshops was to enable the groups to have agency and create their own gardens for their households or for teaching children in their schools and communities. Practical application of the knowledge and skills gained in the workshops is an important part of learning, and where capacity allowed, the team together with our young interns assisted households to improve or start their own food growing initiatives.
Living Soils is committed to building a learning network that consists of context specific training and skills development interventions particularly in the context of the broader objectives of the project. The learning philosophy on the farm is of co-creation, empowerment and inspiring individuals to take ownership of their future.
We have had 38 interns pass through our programmes with a number having succeeded in finding opportunities, be it work, starting their own enterprises or further studies. We are also working on ensuring that we build strong and intentional post-internship support by building opportunities with the project partners and stakeholders to increase their chances for success in the farming sector.
While working with the Lynedoch Valley community, we realised that there is a need to help shape positive mindsets as well as generate interest in farming and food systems amongst young people. Therefore our first internship offering was for the youth-in-transition from the Lynedoch community. This internship started in 2021 with four interns and aimed to provide an opportunity for youth that were unemployed or did not have the resources to further their education. In 2022 two cohorts making up a total of eight interns participated in the internship (read more here).
The internship has been successful in creating a platform of practical skills development for the youth that they can utilise in future, as well as creating opportunities for personal development and building their capabilities for their future of work.
Additionally, the internship has been a platform from which Spier is able to identify potential interns to employ through their YES for Youth programme, with 2 interns employed. Overall the youth interns from both cohorts in 2022 have used the internship to expand their worldview and seek out opportunities for themselves. In November 2022, we concluded with the last group of youth interns, which also marked the end of this internship programme.
Student Work Integrated Learning (WIL)
This internship enables students to apply their learning skills from their academic institutions and be equipped with skills, knowledge and networks that will allow them to be capable farmers, and an opportunity to obtain their qualifications while being exposed to essential work experience in regenerative agriculture.
The second offering is the student internship programme, which was initiated at the beginning of the project in 2019, beginning with three interns that year. In 2020, working in closer partnership with the Agroecology Academy, Living Soils welcomed 11 students who were completing their qualification. During 2021 and 2022 we accepted students from various agricultural institutions including Elsenburg, Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Boland College, as well as young unemployed graduates from various universities through the National Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development. It was an opportunity to test out how the farm could provide practical opportunities for learning, while better understanding the challenges agriculture students face in gaining the proper knowledge, skills and access into the agricultural sector.
The challenges that were identified include the lack of opportunities for students and graduates to get experiential training such as internships, limited access to mentorship, and ultimately lack of employment opportunities. Emerging farmers experience lack of access to resources, lack of government support and assistance, lack of inclusion in the agricultural value chain, lack of access to agricultural networks, and lack of opportunities to advance their farming careers.
Living Soils has a particular interest in women farmers, because of the additional gender inequality that still exists within the agricultural industry on top of the above-mentioned gaps and challenges that make it much harder for women in farming. Empowering women has a much greater impact on their families and communities, and contributes to the overall health and wealth of agriculture in South Africa.
The Living Soils partners identified the opportunity to develop a more focused learning pathway that would positively impact the skills required in the farming sector, support long-term food security whilst continuing to contribute to direct local community food security.
Looking at 2023
We have accepted 16 new student interns from various agricultural institutions that will spend 2023 with us as they gain skills and practical experience, and most importantly build their capabilities as regenerative farming practitioners, that will hopefully have a positive impact in the agricultural sector.
As Living Soils, we continue to strive to support food security in our local community of Lynedoch Valley and the broader Stellenbosch. We will continue to form and strengthen our relationships with our local partners to support local access to produce and food security. The team also continues to build on their knowledge and expertise in regenerative agriculture with mentorship from Megan McCarthy from Spier, Kobus Pienaar from Woolworth, and our collaborative partner Rijk Zwaan. It is through the network of partners and growers that we are able to share knowledge, ideas and lessons in order to build inclusive and resilient farming communities. As Living Soils grows, we are also happy to have the opportunity to pass on our knowledge and contribute to the new generation of farmers.
“We had such a great and experiential year, with good moments and challenging moments. It has been a year of growth for us at the farm and how we incorporated the students, their skills and assets within the programme. What stood out is seeing the team rising above those challenges, working as one, and supporting each other to make sure that the vision of the project is lived and fulfilled. Most of all, we take so many learnings with us as we close the year.” (2022 Living Soils team)