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Microfarms

Abundance on a human scale

By Jen Stern

, |

Microfarms

Abundance on a human scale

By Jen Stern

, |

5 min read

Microfarms probably won’t solve world hunger, but it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that they may be the best candidate for that honour. And, while it’s unlikely that many people living in residential estates are starving, it’s almost certain that most can benefit from more fresh veggies – and from fresher veggies.

What are microfarms?

Microfarms are, really, just very organised veggie gardens – or what would be called allotments in the UK. In one sense, microfarms are as old as agriculture but, in the context of our Western industrialised culture, they sort of date back to the Second World War. In Britain, the USA, Australia and Canada, governments encouraged citizens (at least those who were not engaged in killing the enemy) to grow ‘victory gardens’. These were intensively farmed small plots on wasteland, verges, railway embankments, lawns, sports fields and even – shock, horror! – golf courses.

What do you need for a microfarm?

You really don’t need much – a piece of land, a spade and a few other gardening implements, access to water, seeds and organic matter for composting and mulching. Let’s deal with those in turn:

  • Land – according to lifelong microfarmer, Vernon Gibberd, “a microfarm is where the farmer thinks, plans and farms in square metres rather than hectares.”So the average suburban plot can easily support a microfarm, and could sustain a family.
  • Tools – the joy of microfarms is that they are farmed with hand tools and human labour, not machinery, so you really don’t need much more than a spade, fork, hoe, rake, secateurs, loppers, etc. These would all fit neatly into one corner of the garage.
  • Water – yes, you could use municipal water, but you really don’t want to be dependent on that if (more likely when) we get water rationing. Rainwater tanks are an excellent investment. Vernon suggests – in non-urban environments – that you dig a hafir, which is basically a lined hole in the ground that can be any size or shape, and into which any rain landing on the surrounding ground runs. Hmm – it sounds a bit like a swimming pool, and one permaculture practitioner in Cape Town’s affluent southern suburbs turned her swimming pool into a usable water source by using plants and fish to keep the water clean rather than pool chemicals. It wasn’t a sparkling blue, but it was super-clean.
  • Seeds – or seedlings, if you’re initially a bit nervous about germinating your own – can be bought from good nurseries. Opt for heirloom plants that will self-seed, so you don’t need to keep buying, and start swopping with your neighbours.
  • Compost and mulch are essential to microfarming – you will learn to value every bit of kitchen and garden waste, every egg box, and every bit of compostable material.

How productive are microfarms?

Vernon has kept impressive records for decades and, on his 100-square-metre microfarm in Queenstown (where the rainfall is unreliable and not too plentiful), he can produce – depending on what he plants – between 1,600 kilograms and 2,000 kilograms per year. That’s between 4.5 and 5.5 kilograms per day, which is quite a bit more than most families consume. On 100 square metres! Actually, it’s 100 squares that are cultivated, but the veggie garden is in fact 150 square metres – 10 beds of 10 metres by one metre, separated by halfmetre paths. Vernon has not kept accurate records of how much work the microfarm entails, but he estimates that – once the initial hard work of digging the trenches is done – it takes about an hour a day of work to keep the garden going. Now that sounds like a relaxing way to unwind after eight hours at a desk.

During periods of intensive harvesting, more hands would be required, but that shouldn’t be a problem. You could invite friends and neighbours to an oldfashioned ‘harvest festival’ that culminates in a fabulous feast. There is no better community-building exercise.

The joy of all this abundance is that microfarmers can gift friends, neighbours and others with deliciously fresh veggies on a regular basis and, of course, provide their families with the healthiest, freshest vegetables in the world – and save money in the process. That sounds like a win-win-win situation.

Could microfarms work in residential estates?

The chances are that if, as a resident, you just dug up your lawn and planted rectangular plots of veggies, the neighbours, HOA, trustees, management and/or body corporate would have a few words to say. But it’sworth starting the conversation, and finding a place somewhere on the estate where interested residents could have ‘allotments’. It’s a fabulous way to build community – even for the people who don’t actually grow the veggies. Imagine how nice it would be to give your neighbours a bunch of carrots or a bowl of tomatoes when your harvest is good. Or you could donate veggies to a feeding scheme or to people who are struggling to make ends meet. Or the clubhouse could market itself as a farm-to-fork establishment.

And wouldn’t it be great to develop an estate around the concept of microfarming – a place in which most residents grow radishes instead of roses, and tomatoes instead of tulips? This could work at many different levels – from affordable housing to high-end eco-living. It’s worth thinking about.

Pure pragmatism

While this might sound like a lot of hippy-dippy, awaywith- the-fairies back-to-basics wishful thinking, it is, in fact, a very pragmatic way to deal with the reality of 21st-century living in South Africa. We’ve learned to accept that we will be without electricity from time to time, and many of us have even learned to live without a reliable water supply. When Covid first hit, many people panicked, and raided the supermarkets for nonperishable foods, indicating a deep-seated (and not completely unreasonable) distrust of the robustness of the complex supply chains that support our way of life. We can stock up on the basics, but we can’t stock up on fresh veggies. So starting a microfarm is one logical strategy we can implement to insure against disruption of our vulnerable supply chain.

A new aesthetic

Vernon’s 100 squares are so spectacularly productive because they are intensively farmed – in deep, wellcomposted rectangular beds. I can see aesthetics committees frothing at the mouth, but is it not, perhaps, time to rethink what constitutes ‘beauty’? In the 21st century, we are so far removed from reality that we tend to favour style over substance – in fashion, art, food and even architecture. Perhaps it’s time we learned to recognise the beauty of utility – especially as we battle worldwide issues like climate change and pandemics (yes – plural). There’s no guarantee that COVID-19 will be the last for another 100 years.

At a conference over a decade ago, I heard a speaker say that if we dedicated the same resources to combating climate change as we did in fighting the Second World War, we could halt it in two years, and reverse it in five. It took six years to end WWII, and that was largely due to the fact that innumerable people radically changed their perspectives about a whole lot of things – including garden aesthetics. Eleanor Roosevelt famously planted a Victory Garden on the White House lawn in 1943 – although probably not with her own pretty little hands – and Britain’s King George (Queen Lizzie’s dad) had the royal gardeners pull up the roses at both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to plant vegetables (including, no doubt, cabbages). So, to misquote Lewis Carol: ‘The time has come, the walrus said, to think of many things – of seeds and spades and compost heaps; of cabbages and kings.’

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