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02 Sep 2014 11:23
One of South Africa’s most successful organic farms, Vredenhof in the Cape winelands, is a small family business
that’s constantly reinventing itself as it grows.
It’s run by Trevor and Isabella Blench and
their two sons, Oliver and George, and employs between 18 and 40 people, depending
on the season.
When the Blench family bought the
27-hectare Vredenhof farm 12 years ago it was derelict. Says Oliver: “It had
been abandoned for about 20 years from what we can tell - before then it was
probably a tobacco farm.
But because the land had lain unused for two decades,
it made it ideal for organic farming.”
He says land that has been commercially
farmed using non-organic methods typically takes about three years to return to
its natural state, free of synthetic substances. Two decades of lying fallow
effectively gave the Blench family a blank canvas on which to begin their
organic farming operations.
“We actually have an ideal spot here,” he
says. “ We’re surrounded by vineyards (whose owners don’t use genetically
modified seeds) and there’s a buffer zone between us and them. We also have an
arrangement that they spray the vines when the air is still or the wind is
blowing away from our farm.
“We buy organic seeds and produce our own
to grow about 50 different varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs.”
Many commercial farmers use genetically
modified (GM) seeds which have been engineered in laboratories to, among other
things, be resistant to certain diseases and withstand the chemicals sprayed on
crops to get rid of pests and weeds.
“A lot of these patented seeds don’t
regenerate and there’s a growing concern among consumers about exactly what
goes into GM seeds and the effects on the produce that comes from them,” says
Oliver. “Our customers tend to be people who prefer to go the organic route.”
Commercial food farming operations have
many challenges, principal among them getting food to geographically dispersed
consumers as quickly as possible. Because food is perishable, it’s moved from
farm to packer, wholesaler, importer, warehouse and supermarket shelves along
something called the cold chain - a supply and distribution mechanism that
keeps food refrigerated and prolongs its shelf life. Isabella says Vredenhof’s
products, on the other hand, can be bought from the farm shop at lunchtime on
the day they’re picked.
“We have a wholesale operation for our
organic veggies, fruit and herbs but people asked us to sell directly off the farm,
so two years ago we built a walled complex that houses a coffee shop, kids’
entertainment area and a farm stall that sells anything from our organic farm
produce to the food that we prepare in our kitchens. There’s actually a waiting
list for shops wanting to stock our produce,” she says.
“Coffee shop” is a bit of a misnomer for
the restaurant that serves up organic breakfasts and lunches most days of the
week. The sprawling kitchen complex is immaculately kept and produces anything
from restaurant meals to its own range of dried organic herbs, pies and a
variety of ready-to-cook take-home organic meals.
“It’s a great place for people to come and
get away from the city and it showcases what’s possible using organic
ingredients,” says Isabella.
“Often people who eat here stop in the shop
before they leave and they know that in many instances what they buy there will
have been growing in the fields outside that morning. We’ve seen an upsurge of
interest in organic produce from consumers who have an appetite for fruit that
hasn’t been waxed to make it look shinier or lettuce that hasn’t been pillow
packed in nitrogen to extend its shelf life. There’s a strong move towards
simple, straightforward food – it just tastes better and contains all the
nutrients it’s supposed to,” she says.
The facility is also used to hold launches,
kids’ parties and a daily art class.
But, isn’t organic food more expensive?
“Not necessarily,” says Isabella. “The
premium most consumers pay for organic food at supermarkets is because it’s
sold as a prestige product. Farmers are unlikely to see any of that mark-up. Organic
farming is more labour-intensive than regular commercial farming - we use less
machinery - and the profit margins are smaller. But we are able to sell organic
produce at much the same prices you’d pay for stuff grown on a much larger
scale - you kind of have to be a believer in it,” she says.
This article is part of a series sponsored by MTN Business. While the theme for the series has been agreed to by MTN Business, the articles have been independently sourced by the M&G’s supplement’s editorial team and MTN Business has not seen this article prior to publication.The other articles in the series can be found here.
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