Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On working and owning land in urban South Africa

Now and then, we see the land invasion trucks, accompanied by police trucks, hurtling down the street to stop a shack from being built further into the wetlands. Occasionally, like this morning, we wake up in the morning and we hear a surge of hundreds of voices— sometimes singing, sometimes angry and shouting. Less frequently, thankfully, we hear the noise of rubber bullets and water cannons or smell the smoke of tires burning. It always feels very close. Our fence is just diamond mesh, after all— no electric current, no solid wall. Transparent. (admittedly with lots of baby spiky plants as a token of our security intentions)

Most of the time, our farm is peaceful and quiet. I watch the chickens scratching and try to resist the temptation to plant more seeds while I’m supposed to be writing or studying or reading a student's work. 

How do good intentions fit into this picture? Perhaps good intentions are not really the point. 

When people look at the map, or when friends visit from Masi, they sometimes say “hey! Eug and Jo have a farm and lots of land right next to a township where people are suffering and squashed together. There’s something wrong with this picture!” And they would be right. 

We might reply “we bought this land for a fair price, and we could have bought better land, in a more convenient and safe place, more cheaply. We are working for good things for this community and neighborhood.” That would be true, also. 

So the problem is less that we have land or a house (Many of you reading this blog have a much better standard of living than ours—and if you have access to Amazon and Ikea you almost certainly do), but that our neighbors have a standard of living that is unconscionable.  

From the limitations of this, my one perspective, I’m convinced that part of the solution to this, a seemingly impossible problem, is: We should actively seek out the lowest standard of living that our happiness allows for (and, to the extent of our influence, seek out policies that do the same). Wealth only increases happiness until our essentials are covered, right? Yet it feels never-ending. When taxes increase, or you face unemployment, you should still be able to pay fair wages to everyone who supplies you with goods or services (this follows up the entire chain, not just those directly employed by you: it includes the person in Malaysia who made your child’s hotwheel car… something that I haven’t quite figured out yet). We should aspire to lives that do not take (or even 'earn') more than our fair share, which is terribly difficult if you have access to so much stuff, but which can be a progressive, gradual set of choices.

We should strive to produce as much as we can, or at least understand the world from the perspective of the producer. Not the manager of the factory understanding the supply chain, but the person actually sowing a seed or sewing a garment. My perspective has changed so much with each dead animal or failed crop, and it is so painful when I hear a customer at our nursery complain about our price increase from R10 to R12 ($1) for a plant, knowing how difficult it was to grow it. 

Capital is concentrated in the top end of consumption chains, and when I see my peers I think part of this picture is that we’re so busy, and we’re literally the beneficiaries of capitalism— we have higher degrees and responsible jobs and are trying to cobble together enough childcare to raise our children well. We’re probably a bit stressed a lot of the time because we think perfection is somehow within our grasp (and if you are in the U.S. you may be stuck with a lot of debt). 

Our land is just starting to become productive after being vacant for over five years. The past few years we have been working harder than is sustainable, because I feel so much weight of responsibility to use our land wisely. Yet if you saw our land, you might (rightly) cast it as under-utilized. Give us some time. Utility should not be measured just by economic productivity or human density, it should be measured in terms of values, perhaps (in the case of land) in terms of the depth and strength of commitment to make a space ecologically productive over many years. 

I guess my point is that when it comes to land, farmers must have the margin to take the long view and set up farm systems carefully and wisely (not just in a day and a rototiller). Specifically, if financially we'd had to make the whole acre productive right away, we would have made choices-- rapid clearing that would likely have made the soil worse, paying people marginal salaries to help us. There is land all over South Africa that has the capacity to become sustainably productive, given the right resources and better economic policy, but it takes time (longer than a political term) and care and is often a thankless task, though you would be right to argue that parts of SA have a much better climate for some kinds of farming than Cape Town. 

Despite the challenges, when it comes to small farms, I am all in. For health, productivity, and sustainability in the context of climate change: small farms are vital, even within city limits and even in the context of densely populated settlements. For vegetable production in a city like Cape Town (with year-round growing): we should be growing our vegetables within city limits. 

For those who arrive from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town, trying to get enough money to educate their children and improve things for themselves: people who live in zinc shacks and do domestic work: where so often the employer sees themselves as magnanimous and the employee furtively thanks them for the hard manual labour they have received. In academic conversations, to talk about expanding options for farming in the Eastern Cape is seen as insulting (why would they want to farm? why should they not have access to the city!?) and shortsighted (people are coming, cities are the inevitable future) at best. 

Yet in saying that the options for farming should be expanded and supported I do not mean that anyone should be excluded from the city, or that cities should not grow in proportion to population growth. I mean that farms should be getting smaller and more people working smaller pieces of land, not larger, that food supply chains can and should be shorter, and that mechanization has harmed our food system in significant ways. Of course, mechanization has also benefited our food system: Threshing wheat or grinding corn are unromantic tasks that I am loath to take on. Yet the point where ecological forms of land management and continuous soil improvement become impossible, farming has become unsustainable— at that point farms have become too large. 

So, we should have pathways and tools to farm on large enough pieces of land for subsistence (I have read, and experienced, that 1 acre is a full time job for 1 person), and we should receive the extension services and support for this to be a viable, dignified option, so that farming is not something you run from the first opportunity you get. One should have the capacity to live a dignified (nourished) life on even marginal farm land, improving that land and making it more productive. 

For those of us who are not farming, there should be ways to live simply, to produce at least some of one’s food, and not outsource jobs that are too dirty and uncomfortable (unless they are outsourcing with a good, livable wage). We should not leverage our super-educated brains for maximum money, as others leverage their bodies to produce our food, build our houses, sew our clothes and care for our children. (I may not yet have the words or tone to express this idea as anything other than a tired, opinionated rewriting of Marxism. But I will get there one day!)  

The back to the land movement should not be just a super upper class thing (yet it should also not be a thing that we tell the poor to do). This is not River Cottage. As societies, we should prioritize understanding the basics of what it means to sustain ourselves: from what it takes to build a structure, to what it takes to grow our food. We are poorer for not knowing. I have heard activists in the city say proudly that they are not land owners… they are able to move freely and they are not taking land from anyone. Yet we all put their money in a bank somewhere (and that bank uses their money to buy shares in companies, which buy up land) we buy things, many of us travel, and we all eat, and in that way we are all using land somewhere. Owning land, and farming it, incurs responsibility and a depth of attachment (and moral ambiguity) that is altogether different from buying more responsibly at the farmer’s market. That is not to say one is only moral if one is farming/producing, but that our moral responsibilities are enacted in many different ways, even in a place like South Africa where access to land is deeply contested.  Perhaps part of imagining a different world is to realize that parts of our existence are in grey areas, our perspectives limited, and that we moving through the world imperfectly (whether farming or not).

Friday, May 4, 2018

(Not) Self-sufficient in Cape Town: Lots of honey & vegetables, failed olive oil harvest

Our fellow workers on the farm are confronted by endless work, lack of tools, seed, lack of variety and stimulus in their daily work. They are indeed leading a hard life and a poor life. But they are trying to rebuild within the shell of the old, a new society, wherein the dignity and freedom and responsibility of man is emphasized. And there is no place better to do it than on the land. (The Catholic Worker, October, 1939) 

One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities. (Richard Eckersley)

We've been living on our farm for over 2.5 years now, so I'm thinking again about what we do and don't grow here, and what our lives are like. It's not 1939, and we're not living communally, but the Catholic Worker movement does provide inspiration, and also speaks to the challenges of trying to produce our own food. The lines between producing poorly and producing "well" are fuzzy, and figuring out how to make our small, 1 acre farm more productive is as much about good stewardship given highly contested (and scarce) city land as it is about a romantic idea of feeding ourselves. I also list out foods to make food more visible, and the processes of growing (and not growing) less abstract.

It's still early days in the life of our farm. Also, our story is definitely the story of part-time farmers who support ourselves through off-farm work, and who struggle to find the time to farm. Still, I'm coming to think that a lot of descriptions about how difficult and expensive it is to become more self-sufficient in food emerges from early (in)experience, bad farming conditions and running out of energy or money too early on. I'm still very inexperienced, of course, and one cannot quickly change one's farm environment (our sand is not going away any time soon), but eventually things start to shift. The soil starts to get better. There are a few successes. So my farming motto, if I had one, might involve the word "persistence," and be about not taking these few years of unusual drought as proof that (urban) farming isn't efficient, doesn't "work," or is too difficult. It can be very efficient, but only if you have a lot of margin to survive inevitable failures-- every farm is different and so even if you are very experienced, I imagine it takes some time to acclimate. As a side note, I think this means that if policy were to better support farmers (urban and rural), it might involve providing greater margin (financial and in terms of time) to survive early failures (and more time to build up the soil and infrastructure slowly so that a farmer really understands what systems they're adding and why, and how to fix them if things aren't right).

We still buy big bags of potatoes and onions, which are staple items for us, but we produce most other vegetables (I'm afraid to say that on the internet, as we're always one chicken invasion away from disaster). This year, my plan for the garden includes (weather and pest permitting) a large crop of garlic, sweet potatoes, potatoes and onions, enough tomatoes to preserve for the year. I can't really calculate the calories on the vegetables we produce, but despite the drought we eat greens a few times a week (I know it should be every day), produced a pretty good crop of squashes, pumpkins and tomatoes, and are still getting a lot of peppers, eggplant and cape gooseberries from our lingering summer crop.

We're close to getting a lot of fruits and should produce enough fruit for our family's consumption, and possibly more than enough, in about 2 years, but for the most part we still buy fruit as our trees are taking a while to mature-- not helped by the drought! We got some peaches, some apricots and blackberries this past summer, have a fairly continuous supply of gooseberries we eat every day, and have a large crop of tamarillos (currently), guavas (still ripening), and bananas (still ripening) and granadillas/guavadillas are finally on their way. We're hoping next year we'll start to harvest some citrus, pomegranates, almonds, figs and plums. Then in another couple of years we'll get much more citrus and nectarines, apples and pears.

Our trees produced a lot of olives this year, and we tried to make olive olive oil with our Piteba press, with disastrous results (Hana mercifully overturned the "olive oil," so we didn't have to actually make the decision whether to use it or not). We're going to try peanut oil rather, then work our way back up to olive oil... So we're going to be buying in oil (or at least nuts) for a good while. We were able to give away some olives to friends so at least they weren't wasted.

The Not-Pinterest version of making olive oil...

Thanks to my dad and our three hives, we're suddenly in a position to stop buying sugar. My dad did not take honey from the bees over the summer at all, because both of our two hives had swarmed (I managed to catch one but not the other). It's not that sugar was exactly eating away at our food budget, but having a row of honey jars on the shelf feels wonderful.

If we need to get about 3 million calories per year as a family, the amount of honey we produce is significant-- if we ate most of our honey ourselves we could get over 10% of our calories from honey produced by 3 hives.

Honey stores on the top right (and foraged seaweed on the left.... odd but free and full of good nutrients)

Not counting our duck eggs (which come and go depending how well they hide them), we consume about 500 calories a day from eggs-- and could probably consume more, when we include duck eggs. Again, this could be up to 10% of our calories as a family.

Ducklings, olive trees...

Anyway, so what's the plan for the future?
Buying in the short term but hope to stop buying in a few years time
  • Some feed for chickens and ducks (about 40% of their diet)
  • Almonds
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Potatoes/sweet potatoes
  • Onions
  • A lot of different fruits.
Still buying in the long term?
Good food club: buying stuff in bulk for 25-30 families.
  • Olive oil
  • Maybe meat (once/twice a month).
  • Cat food, budgie food.
  • Milk/cream*
  • Butter*
  • Cheese*
  • Lentils
  • Raisins
  • Blueberries
  • Flour (possibly sometimes also in the form of pasta, or we might going back to making pasta!)
  • Coffee (green beans, which we roast)-- though I think over time we'll produce enough robusta coffee beans for a month or two of consumption. We have 3 robusta coffee trees (and one arabica, which we keep indoors) and are growing more from seed-- ultimately once we have enough shade, my goal is to have 25 shade grown robusta trees.
  • Chocolate 
  • Brown rice
  • Rolled oats
  • Peanuts
*Although I don't have any definite plans to produce any of these things ourselves, I am still dreaming about getting a few dairy goats (Nigerian dwarf gots), maybe in three years' time, especially if I can organize enough organic waste from landscapers to offset their feed.

My point in making this list is just to admit that we're not trying to produce everything, and that independence from industrial food takes a lot of time and effort. If one wants to maintain a decent standard of living in the in-between, the industrial food system is actually what makes the transition possible-- knowing that I can go and grab crappy ice cream, for example, is sometimes what gives me the self-control to cook lentils. In fact, the bottom five things on that list that are mainly imported, most notably oats, which we eat daily (usually from Australia or Germany), short grain brown rice (usually from the USA), which we eat  couple of times a week, and peanuts (usually from China)/peanut butter. In the future, it may be that we actively work to make some of these things become less important in our diet so that we can rely even more on food grown on the farm, or it may be that other life adjustments take priority. We would like to keep improving the productivity of the farm, but at a certain point that could mean selling or giving away food, and spending more time reflecting and sharing how our farm fits into broader food movements, rather than endlessly adding diversity.
The challenge of envisioning real utopias is to elaborate clear-headed, rigorous, and viable alternatives to existing social institutions that both embody our deepest aspirations for human flourishing and take seriously the problem of practical design. Real utopias capture the spirit of utopia but remain attentive to what it takes to bring those aspirations to life. What we want are utopian destinations which, even if they are themselves unreachable, nevertheless have accessible waystations that help move us in the right direction. (Erik Olin Wright
The hard thing is remembering that although there's an endless list of things to do, the projects must be paced somehow, and daily life/work should not have to wait. There will never be a time when the farm is complete. There's also no such thing as a perfect diet or a perfect farm; it seems to be all about learning what to try and when, for our unique context, and not going too crazy in the attempt.