/ 16 March 2024

Urban farms in Joburg are a jolly good idea

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The Jolly Good Farm in Albertskroon, run by Anique and Jonathon Pinkhard, is next to the Alberts Farm conservancy and produces a variety of vegetables in what was once a parking area. Photos: Derek Davey

Johannesburg’s gentle winters means its residents can grow food there all year round, say Anique and Jonathon Pinkhard, who farm in the suburb of Albertskroon.

Their business, the Jolly Good Farm, began in the communal garden of their block of flats. Once the couple started selling vegetables to friends and family, the demand increased and now the business pretty much supports them. 

“We started growing some micro-greens on our balcony, but we didn’t know what we were doing really. We found some innovative stuff on the internet and bought some books, and that’s how it started,” said Jonathon. 

The couple then asked the Portuguese Welfare Society in Albertskroon if they could rent land that was used for parking, rustled up some friends and started an urban vegetable garden. 

It took them about four weeks to prepare the land, because the ground was filled with building rubble. After a year, they expanded the garden to about 500 square metres. The couple worked hard between their day jobs — he’s a videographer, she ran a rusk company — getting up early before work to garden and again in the evenings after work. But after about two years, it became a sustainable source of income. 

From the get-go, they decided that everything they produce and use should be 100% organic; they make their own compost and don’t use fertilisers and pesticides. 

News about the Jolly Good Farm spread by word of mouth and through their Instagram account, and soon Anique was fielding more and more calls and WhatsApp messages from people wanting the boxes of veggies that she delivers to clients’ doors.

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Unlike many careers, where trade secrets are jealously guarded, the two believe that it will never become a competition, and have found that most of the farmers they meet are happy to share their knowledge.

The couple said there are not enough people farming in Johannesburg, and if more did it, it would quickly become a communal practice.

It was common for people in urban areas a few generations ago to grow their own vegetables, but today there seems to be a mindset that digging in the garden and getting your hands dirty is somehow “inferior”, the Pinkhards said.

“Time has become a precious commodity: there’s a gap between you and your food created by supermarkets, a global phenomenon that most of us have bought into because of its convenience,” the couple said. Breaking the chain of going to the supermarket to get food does require hard work, some space and some compost — but it is rewarding.

To grow all of your own food requires a fair amount of space and a fair amount of planning, says Jonathon. It helps to have spreadsheets, plan well, and know what’s going on with the weather. The richer your soil, the higher the nutrient density of your crops. 

“We always joke that since we started eating our own food, we eat less, because there’s more in it.” 

He adds that the more correct ingredients you have in your soil, the less space you need.

Making your own soil that supports successful vegetable growing does require some knowledge, but Jonathon said this information is available on the internet. 

Soil is full of minerals, so you just need to set the biology in motion through compost, compost teas, fungal networks and mulches to break the soil down and make the nutrients available to the plants, which “allows nature to do its job” and feed the plants. 

Anique believes that growing your own food is to some degree instinctive, and once you start, you quickly learn how to do it. “I would say to home growers, just start, you’ll be fine. It’s very inspiring, and even if there are only two veggies that you can grow to start with, let that be your guiding light.” 

Anique has started consulting for a farm in the Magaliesburg area, but she also wants to work with people who are already growing or wish to grow food in their urban gardens and help them set up their gardens the correct way. 

“Often it is about the sun, as some beds don’t get enough of it, and I also want to teach people about creating and maintaining their soil and their compost. I want to make it fun and accessible for those who are getting started.”

Johannesburg has a history of growing food, and suburbs such as Sandton and Orange Grove were once orchards that fed the goldfield mine workers. There are a lot of rocky areas in the city, but the soil is very good.

“We found when we dug here that there were lots of bricks and tiles under the surface, but in general the soil is really good quality,” says Jonathon. 

It’s also easy to regenerate or improve the quality of the soil in your garden, and perhaps also on your sidewalks and in parks, to “give nature a helping hand”. Ideally one should grow plants that are not only edible for humans, but those that are good for insects and birds, too. When you create a working ecosystem in your garden then you don’t need insecticides, because a balance is created. 

Asked about the role of the city council in urban farming, the Jolly Good Farmers said they know of initiatives here and there, but most of the government’s focus is on large-scale projects that use chemical insecticides and fertilisers. In addition, government projects often don’t take into account the specific needs of each community; instead it applies generalised principles that are disconnected from what’s happening on the ground.

“Our philosophy is that the community needs to take ownership and start growing food themselves, without waiting for the local council or the government. There is enough water and enough land for Johannesburg to become self-sustaining. 

“If the movement becomes big enough on its own, from the community first, then perhaps the government will sit up and take notice,” says Anique. 

Jonathon believes that although places like Albert’s Farm are known as green lungs and are better left in a wild state, there are many other spaces that could be used for growing food that are presently lawns. While grass or weeds are better than bare soil, grass requires mowing, it can’t be eaten and there are so many people who need food.

“What could be useful is if the government makes green spaces available, in a similar way to the allotment set-up in the UK. This space we have created, for instance, could be divided into allotments for 10 households, which could then grow and barter and trade.”

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The greatest enemy the Jolly Good Farm faces is weeds, says Anique. They can become competition for your vegetables, particularly if you don’t stay on top of them, but they are there for a reason — to cover and bind the soil. 

Weeds help to pull nutrients from the soil and bring it to the surface, so they are good for the soil, and, by identifying which weeds are growing where, you can use them to guide you about your soil: is it too compact, does it lack certain nutrients? 

Introducing chickens has helped control the weeds, because weeds are their favourite food. 

“We are starting to look into this stuff more deeply. Weeds may feel like an enemy because controlling them is a lot of work, but they also have their place,” Anique said. 

Insects are less of a problem because the Jolly Good Farm grows a variety of vegetables (some in tunnels), which helps to keep a balance. “We use many permaculture principles, but are not fully permaculture based.” 

Anique said she plants a crop such as lettuce in a few different places, and if it gets eaten by insects or slugs in one place, the other patch will usually be fine. They also use crop rotation, which keeps the plants strong, so even if there are insects, they can resist them. 

“It’s good to keep your garden a bit wild; we let our coriander go to flower after two or three cuts, and that attracts wasps and bees, which often eat the bugs that are starting to cause problems. So you bring nature in, and it keeps a balance.”

This is the first story in a series on urban farming in Johannesburg. Watch this space.