From seed to reality: A three year reflection of the Living Soils Community Learning Farm

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When the Living Soils Community Learning Farm was launched in March 2019, it had three focus areas where it hoped to make a meaningful impact: food production, young farmer skills development and community food security.

As we celebrate the three year anniversary of this project, an initiative between partners Woolworths, Spier and the Sustainability Institute, we reflect on the impact made and various milestones achieved between March 2019 and March 2022.

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Food production

The first crop of vegetables was planted in August 2019, and the first harvest took place that November. Just under a hectare of land was cultivated to grow 12 varieties of vegetables using regenerative agriculture principles. The annual yields grew steadily, with 7.2 tonnes of vegetables harvested during 2020 and just over 8 tonnes during 2021.

Over the three year span, a total of 15.9 tonnes of vegetables were harvested, with 30 varieties planted on 1.2 hectares of land.

Young farmer skills development and employment

Living Soils is committed to train and develop unemployed youth and women, who have a passion to address food security in our country. The full-time staff complement has increased steadily these past three years. The three young women farmers that helped to set-up the farm in 2019 – Vuyolwethu Zicina, Thandiwe Mtyingizani and Phuthuma Mgu – were all appointed as junior farm managers during 2021 along with Sindiswa Mdodana.

In addition, farmer interns gain practical and theoretical knowledge during their time at Living Soils, working side-by-side with the more experienced farmers.

Together they all benefit from skills development in various areas, such as sustainable farming practices, business entrepreneurship, personal development, biodiversity and environmental management as well as tractor training.

Many of the interns and young farmers have been employed elsewhere, or have started their own small-scale farms back home. Interns such as Eldrich October and young farmers such as Nontombi Mtwazi are an inspiration!

Community food security

Living Soils addresses food security through a child-centred lens because it is important for children to receive adequate nutrition for proper development. Almost 1/3 of the total produce harvested have been donated to food insecure families and individuals.

“The project grows dense vegetables that are needed to make nutritious meals. The produce goes to various beneficiaries that include the feeding programme at the Sustainability Institute that provides daily meals to 200 children within the Lynedoch Valley. Produce also goes to the Pebbles project that distributes over 1200 meals a day to Early Childhood Development Centres, and afterschool centres in the Cape Winelands area.

Additionally, since the outbreak of COVID-19, household and adult food insecurity has increased within the Stellenbosch area, as in other parts of the country, and Living Soils saw the importance of addressing direct household food security. Initially supporting 400 families through the Lynedoch Valley Collaborative, produce still goes to over 100 households that receive vegetable boxes or their food through soup kitchens in Lynedoch and Vlottenburg. The Small Things Fund also receives produce to support food insecure university students,” shares Rirhandzu Marivate, Project Manager for Living Soils.

In celebration of the three-year anniversary of the Living Soils Community Learning Farm, partners Woolworths, Spier and the Sustainability Institute gathered and helped with weeding and preparing beds on the 1-hectare of land.

The relevance of projects such as these, is highlighted by the fact that Woolworths extended financial support for an additional year towards the Living Soils programme. “Over the last 19 years Woolworths has donated R7.2 billion in cash and in product to alleviate hunger.  Our donations and funding have supported initiatives that address short- and long-term food security across South African communities and are part of our vision to be the difference that inspires and cares,’ shares Zinzi Mgolodela, Woolworths Director of Corporate Affairs. “Our partnership with the Living Soils Community Learning Farm addresses a key component of our approach to addressing food insecurity in a way that is empowering others to grow their own food in alignment to our regenerative farming programme as well as builds skills and support the local community’s food security needs. This is a collaborative partnership with Spier and the Sustainability Institute, aimed at addressing food security in the Stellenbosch Lynedoch community, growing a much-needed skill in agriculture, as well as make a significant impact on women empowerment and youth unemployment. We are very excited to be continuing to fund the Living Soils Community Learning Farm with the intention of collectively strengthening the programme so that it is able to develop skills of an increased number of interns and further support the transformation of the farming sector while ensuring a food secure future. Following a three-year pilot, the additional year of funding will allow partners to define a more compelling and impactful future for the initiative.”

Reflecting on where the farm started and the work that needed to be done to get the land ready for planting, the team has taken great strides through regenerative farming and applying the principles of Farming for the Future. “Spier graciously provided the project a piece of land – a fundamental and foundational requirement for farming. The field was overgrown with kikuyu and there were no farming activities for quite some time. From our Farming for the Future guidelines, the first step was to determine the status of the soil through grid sampling, and to evaluate the available irrigation. The soil needed a lot of attention to get it to the minimum level that would be suitable for vegetable production. We also determined where the higher and lower potential areas of the field were and started growing vegetables on the higher potential areas. The team did a really good job and within a year we could see a remarkable difference. The biggest achievement was to see how the students embraced the methodology of collating scientific data, interpreting the data and then applying the required action to improve the soil,” says Kobus Pienaar, Woolworths Farming for the Future expert.

Spier has a vested interest in the Lynedoch community, and for them Living Soils and the past three years embody all that is possible in a next generation of agriculture.  “The project has grown from a strong collaboration of unified partners with common purpose to a community filled with generosity of spirit enabled by the sharing of knowledge, skills and experience,” reflects Heidi Newton-King, Spier’s HR and Sustainability Director.

“The last three years have been challenging, firstly given the complexity of the problems that we are trying to address as Living Soils, and secondly establishing the project while faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many moments to be proud of, but the most notable achievement these past three years is the growth, empowerment and agency that the team has taken up, particularly our junior farm managers, who started as interns and have now firmly taken on leadership roles and ownership in running the learning farm,” reflects Marivate.

Living Soils is committed to creating employment and developing skills of upcoming farmers. This is the group of interns and youth-in-transition for 2022. From left: Wongalethu Mkrola, Elrico Titus, Tarrick Daniels, Khiba Khabinyana, Melanie Jacobs, Jenay Gelant, Nomveliso Xhalisile, Mapitsi Sedutla, Lona Cimileyo and Asiphe Bhekaphezulu.

The number of young farmers, interns and youth-in-transition employed by Living Soils have grown steadily these past three years. From top left to bottom right: Nolubabalo Mntuyedwa, Asiphe Bekhaphezulu, Nomveliso Xhalisile, Lona Cimileyo, Petra Hendricks, Nompumelelo Cebekhulu, Jenay Gelant, Melanie Jacobs, Mapitsi Sedutla, Phuthuma Ngesi, Thandiwe Mtyingizani, Yoliswa Mahobe, Sindiswa Mdodana, Vuyolwethu Dyubele, Khiba Khabinyana, Athini Gunuza, Rirhandzu Marivate, Tarrick Daniels, Elrico Titus and Wongalethu Mkrola.