Farmer Podcast: Nomandla Mthiyane

  • Name: Nomandla Mthiyane
  • Age: 36
  • Location: Leap School Ndabeni
  • Farming since: 2020

Podcast Transcript

Can you please introduce yourself?

Hello everyone, my name is Nomandla. I’m a farmer, I started in 2020. Strangely, I have never been a farmer before or grew up in a background where everyone farms. But since the hard lockdown, I was actually looking for something that will keep me going. Because it was just a depressing environment at home, where you’re all in there, you don’t know what to do, you are frustrated, you can’t go to work, you can’t go anywhere. So every time I went online and looked for something to do because some people were baking and doing all sorts of things. But then for me, I needed something that would actually give me peace, internal peace for the things I was going through at that time, personally. So, every time I would go search for something, I would bump into an article that spoke about agriculture, farming and all sorts of things and they were young people. Then I thought I need to try this. Obviously, you should chat with someone or a friend. Then I called a friend of mine, her name is Nozibele, and I was like, hey I don’t know what to do but then there’s this thing that I find very interesting and I would love to try it. So she gave me a number of a person that I can call. That was towards the end of 2020. So, I called the lady and she was based in Khayelitsha and then she referred me to a lady that was based in Langa. I called the lady, so I could do some basic training and gain more knowledge around farming. So I got that and I did the basics and I didn’t know where to go and where I was going to start farming. So I walked around trying to find a piece of land where I could go and ask for it. Then I went to St Francis [School] because that’s where my son, my 6-year-old son, used to go. There was this abandoned piece of land where they would put all the rubble. I spoke to the principal and unfortunately, the principal could not help me because she said she doesn’t manage the property but she will make an appointment with someone who’s going to help me. So luckily when I told them what I wanted to do, what my interests are, they were like “Really?!”. There were guys here that started this thing and they never got anywhere. Then I said, look this is what I want to do, I don’t know how it’s gonna turn out but then I promise, I feel it, I’m gonna do it. And the guy let me and I was so excited. You know I was still working at that time, I was actually working at the Southern Sun Cullinan. We were working shifts, so it was in the afternoon when I went and passed by while I still had to go to work. So I was so excited when I got to work, I got this news, I was like, oh gosh, I’m gonna start farming. I’m so excited. So anyway, everyone asked if there is a space in Langa for farming and I was like, yes there is. So I started and I recruited a few ladies. But one thing that I realized is that farming, for other women or young people, they look at it or they see it as something for uneducated people, poor people or ugly people. So for me, it was a matter of trying and teaching them and making sure that they understand this thing or they feel it as well. But then you can only introduce something to someone and if that person doesn’t have the same ideal or shares the same sentiments, there’s not much you can do. So that’s how I started.

So I know you’ve mentioned that it’s been recently that you have the farm but how large is the farm now compared to when you got that plot and do you ever allow people to come to visit your farm?

Absolutely I do. You know when we started, everything was just down there like all the rubbish, the trees and everything, so it was a process. It was a process for me and you have to feed the soil first, in order to start going. So we started on a small bed that was less than 100m2 but then we opened more space and now it’s more than 500m2. We give harvest to the schools, we give it to other people and the soil, whatever is left. And the great thing is I supply to Jordan [Ways of Cooking Restaurant].

Let’s have a closer look at your current harvest, which plants do you grow on the farm in particular and why did you choose to go with those plants?

In the beginning, I actually started with everything. I wanted to try everything. I had cabbage, I had carrots, I had herbs, I had like every crop in my garden. The reason being, I was unsure, I didn’t have a client until then. I was excited, each picture that I saw online or on Instagram or whatever, I wanted to see that in my garden. So I was just planting, wanting to decorate my garden. Then I realized, no, my client specifically wants this vegetable and at school as well, the easiest vegetable to cook is this. So the majority that I have is spinach. It’s spinach, there’re a few herbs I have because we need them.

I know you mentioned with your veggies you provide Jordan’s as well as schools. Anything else that you do with your harvest besides that?

Yes, sometimes I give it to my neighbours or whoever that I see. You know when you want to show what you have with people. Sometimes we think, where do we take these and we just randomly give it to a group of people and they can go cook. The idea behind this farming was when I saw the gap during the lockdown, where people were struggling. Those who didn’t have money wouldn’t get a chance to buy vegetables, and those who had money would go and clean out the stores, they would take out everything. And then I thought to myself, you know what, if we had a sort of market within our community, it would come in handy to other people who cannot afford to travel and buy in bulk. So that was the idea, to teach the kids, to give back to the community and to show young kids, and girls specifically, that you know what, farming is not an old-fashioned thing, it’s not for uneducated people, it’s not for ugly people, it’s fun, it heals you.

How has labour on the farm changed from when you started until now?

It has been tough, I don’t wanna lie. In the beginning, I had more hands to assist, to work with, and it was a lot of work to be done when you need to prepare your plots and everything from scratch. I would say, it should be easier because everything is laid out now. But now it’s tough because there are more programs that I approach, that I’m trying to get myself into because I resigned from my work because I wanted to focus on this and do other things. So now, there are more things that I do and there are fewer hands. And now the drought is hitting me…

So with regards to that, what tools have had the biggest impact on the farm from when it started until now? What tools have really helped you to make things better?

The sprinklers, they gave me a break. Because at the beginning I used to get water from my house to the garden using the buckets to carry water. But amazingly when I got the wellpoint and the sprinklers, it was a break for me. I would just go to the garden and add more beds.

Can you think of any tools that contemporary farmers must employ in order to stay competitive?

I think to keep yourself well informed, read, go to other farmers, check how they do things and make it exciting, don’t make your place of work boring. For me, it’s really different. The moment I step foot in my garden, I’m happy, I’m at peace, I sing, I pray, I do all sorts of things. I worship that garden. And it’s amazing how it welcomes people. Even the teacher because it’s inside the school. Maybe sometimes when I get to the garden, I bump into a teacher, they’re praying and I don’t ask questions because I know that space is welcoming to everyone. It’s a holy place. I would say keep the garden as clean as possible, not clean as in physically cleaning but then keep it clean, keep it as a holy place. I call the garden ‘Organic Eden’. Basically, to me, it says, I’m clean. Don’t come with any baggage. If you’re stressed and depressed please keep your distance. Stay away from it.

With regards to the farm, do your family members play any role in the farming?

My kids, my boys. I’ve got two boys that are helping me and they are excited. When I say let’s go water, they’re all happy and I let them play. I let them do the beds, their own plots. So yes, my kids.

So, this is a bit more personal but what is the hardest part for you? I know you said, you really enjoy it and it’s a happy place for you but what is the hardest part of farming for you? What are your daily challenges?

It’s water again. Currently, it’s water. Otherwise, when I’m gonna get there I don’t have any other challenges but then currently it’s water. My wellpoint is dry. So for the past few weeks, I had to get people to help me and I had to pay them. Then I realized whatever harvest that I sell, it basically goes to the people that I ask for assistance. So that’s the hardest part for me currently. Otherwise, if water was okay, I wouldn’t have any challenges.

On a positive note, what’s the most satisfying part of farming for you? What do you love most about the work? 

When I see the green colours, all the different colours in my garden, it actually says to me, you are blessed, your hands are blessed. Because the moment they grow, it says, there’s nothing that comes out of your hand and would die. It gives me hope, it gives me strength, it gives me a drive. It gives me drive, yes that’s the word.

What is the biggest change? I know you’ve mentioned it’s been a slow kind of change but what’s the biggest change that you’ve encountered during your years of farming? Even if it’s personal to you or your situation of living. 

It gave me peace again, it healed me, it took away depression, stress, anxiety. It healed me. Honestly, I think I’m getting emotional. It has been done amazingly. I don’t even need a psychiatrist or go for counselling. When I’m depressed, there is just one place that I think of. Let me go to my garden. And I get there and I’m good.

How do you see your impact on the community, now that you’ve mentioned that teachers also come?

You know, when I deliver spinach at Jordan’s, I get this so many times. Because when I go to the garden I dress up as a farmer. I don’t mind about people and how they see me at that point because I do what I love. So when I go and deliver, they would look at this young woman that has dirty hands and shoes. And our community, I would say, is sometimes messed up. It will mess you up if you’re not strong enough. They’ll look at you as a nobody. It’s the same people I deliver to, they look at me. But when I go to collect invoice money from them and obviously I’m coming from somewhere, from a meeting or something, they look at me again and they don’t even recognize me. They are like, please wait and sit here ma’am, do you want a drink? And I’m like no, I’m the delivery lady. I’m the queen of spinach. And they are like, oh wow you look different, you are so beautiful. That’s our community. And it’s sad because you want to bring in young women, you want to save young women, to say, look this is what you can do. You can actually build your career out of this. So, as mature and oldish women, we look at each other as in why, why do you do that, why do you have dirty nails, why do you dress up like that, why are you sweating? But we all dress up and we’re enjoying ourselves and we’re jolling.

Do you feel like you get support from the local community?

I do. Some people become amazed and be like, we’ve never thought of that, you’re smart. You know women, your age, they want to sit in the office, they want to be seen as successful, even though they’re not. Yes, so some people become amazed and they ask, how did you start? Please help us, come to our garden, please show me and and and…

And what do you think the government should do to change the farming industry?

There’s a lot that still needs to be done. I’m not saying they should scrape everything out. If they are saying they want to develop young women, they must make it easily accessible. When I’m saying that, it’s hard to get a piece of land that’s abandoned. You go to this site and you’re told to speak to this person. You go to that person and that person, that you think could help you, they tell you another story. It is very hard. And when you get the funding at least, it’s another mission. You don’t get your stuff as in here are the tools you wanted. It’s still hard. I’m telling you, I’ve got a piece of land at home but it’s a process to actually get an approval of funding. It’s a mission. I just wish the government could actually realize and see that people really want to do farming, people are willing, they want to feed themselves, they want to create their own wealth. They want to help our economy, they want to help and assist to strengthen our economy but then, if they’re not opening their hands and say, yes we have this available to you. The best thing is that they don’t just give you money, which is the best thing but then they must make it easily accessible like you have a piece of land, we will help you. It’s not gonna be a struggle. In Western Cape we think there is no land, there is, there’s land but then it’s hard to get it. Even within our communities, there are abandoned pieces of land but then they are reserved for what? You see that land for years. More than ten years you see that land, you’re told it’s for this but then it’s not being used.

You did mention that girls like us, South African youngsters, are not realizing the importance of farming. How serious is it that we’re not realizing and seeing the importance and the opportunity that comes with farming?

I think we’re still stuck in a world…I’m not saying that going to school is a wrong thing, it’s the best thing, it gives you the best foundation. It opens your brain, you are able to think and be creative and be able to implement certain things that you need. But then I think, people need to realize that there are careers out there but there is not so much employment within that. People need to look at agriculture as in, you go to school, you study it. If you don’t get a job, there is a 0,0% chance of not getting a job after you’ve done agriculture or anything. Even if you didn’t go to school you can do a short course and boom, you become a farmer. You create your own wealth. As long as you have a piece of land and water available, nothing can stop you. You just need what you have. You use the kitchen waste. There’s a lot you can use, you don’t have to buy anything. The only thing you need to buy is seedlings and once you have the seeds you can create your own. They don’t realize how easy it is and how much you can get from farming.

And what do you think the best seeds or plants to get started with for urban farming would be?

Spinach. You never go wrong. It’s throughout the year. It doesn’t stop, it doesn’t have a season. It’s a year-rounder.

How do you store the spinach, the vegetables and the herbs that grow on your farm best, so that they don’t rot before you deliver?

You know what, I don’t deliver without you requesting because I don’t want my vegetables to standard. I want to deliver them as crispy, as fresh and as soily as possible. This is why they don’t look anywhere else when it comes to spinach or my veggies. They call me and they’re like, we want yours because I deliver it as fresh as possible.

Just looking into the future, at the end, I would like to know what your future plans are? Where do you see yourself in five years?

I see myself owning a big farm. It’s either in Western Cape, Eastern Cape or any province. That is going to happen. That’s the plan.

Last but not least, what advice would you like to give to other farmers?

You need to love your garden, love your farm. Love whatever crops you have, love them. Take care of them. Don’t let anyone into your garden because we all have different vibes. So, if you know a certain person’s vibe, it’s nice when it’s all fenced, it has a gate. You don’t really allow anyone in. Take care of your crops, they’re more like your babies, they’re more like your kids. Cause you wouldn’t let anyone spend time with your children. You actually check who they play with. With whom do they spend most of the time. And if you see the people they hang out with are not good, then you try and protect them. So the same applies when it comes to your garden or your farm. Take care of it. Protect it.

Producer: Sandra Heming

Interviewer: Yamkela

Recording engineer: Kevin Ribbans

Technical support and production: Bridges for Music Academy

This podcast is part of a series of stories of inspiring individuals in our urban farmer network, a local group of urban farmers co-creating and operating food gardens in the community of Langa, Cape Town, South Africa. Farmers receive support from the Langa Agrihub, a project of the SA Urban Food and Farming Trust that is generously supported by the JDC.

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