Tim Abaa on Agroecology

Tim’s tiny township garden in Orange Farm south of Johannesburg is absolutely crammed with food and diversity.

Amongst the 52 fruit trees (including apples, pomegranates, pears, plums and avocados) wander hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea fowl. Somehow, he also fits in pigs, pigeons, rabbits, beehives, a nursery of potted shrubs, trees and herbs and a gardening library filled with interesting books for his community to borrow.  Clearly, Tim is the right man to inspire small farmers, so we invited him to Mpophomeni to run a course on Agroecology in the Emphare Organics garden in Mtholampilo Street.

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“In 2012, I was thinking at night – I am poor, but I want to be rich. Poverty does not sleep.” Tim tells us, “I knew how to grow trees, but had no money to buy potting bags, so I started collecting empty plastic bottles – I paid the kids to collect them for me. I grew thousands of trees. The problem was that commercial nurseries did not want to buy trees in plastic bottles, so I couldn’t sell them.”  Undaunted, Tim decided he would offer the trees to his community for free and invited everyone to come and help themselves to the tree of their choice. Pawpaws, apricots, guavas, peaches and grapevines all found new homes in his neighbours’ gardens and Tim did the rounds checking up on how they were doing. Now 90% of the households in Orange Farm south of Johannesburg have a fruit tree.  That is an astonishing achievement.

Then, he got an order for 600 trees and made some money. “My investment was nil,” he grins, “just time, seeds from the trees growing everywhere, manure and plastic bottles.”

By now Tim certainly has everyone in the group’s attention!  “There is only one 17 December 2019. Today. It will never come again, so don’t waste it! Are you with me?”  We were riveted.

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Tim’s pet hate is junk food, he believes firmly that food is medicine.  He brought along a packet of a popular brand of snack food to demonstrate – called Go Slo.  “You want to go slow?” he asked, “you wonder why children cannot concentrate at school? It is because they eat this rubbish. It is a slow killer.  Organic food is our insurance – if you eat well you won’t need doctors and hospitals.” Apparently, 6.5 million people in South Africa suffer from high blood pressure and over 6 million with diabetes.  Both these diseases are directly related to the food we eat. “In the old days, poor people ate organic food, now it is the rich who eat this way.”

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Tim tells us that there are six types of farming and explains each one:

Traditional

That’s what our grandfathers did, back in the day.  It is ok, but with the increased population and lack of space, it doesn’t work so well anymore.

Sustainable

This is permaculture – based on the principles of Land Care, People Care and Profit Share.  This method sees a tree as a source of food, firewood, shelter, fencing and habitat for other creatures. This method works with Nature to design systems that work for humans.

Biodynamic

Rudolph Steiner’s method includes the spiritual world and the sun, moon and stars. For example, the movement of certain butterflies would signal the time to plant.  Nettles are an ingredient used often in Biodynamic preparations – they bring vitality and add a lot of iron to compost.  A mixture of cow dung and nettles is commonly used to boost growth.

IP Agriculture

Integrated Production uses practices from many types of agriculture – sometimes organic, sometimes using chemicals to deal with infestations of ‘pests’. Tim refers to those who follow this method as “fence-sitters”.

Conventional, Industrial Farming

This method is big on monoculture and is highly mechanised.    “These farmers would have just one wife, called Beans”, laughed Tim.  This type of agriculture began in the 1960’s when manufacturers found themselves with excess stock of nitrogen (previously used to manufacture bombs in the World Wars).  Nowadays, chemical giants Bayer and Monsanto control our food system through their sales of herbicide, pesticide and seeds.

Agroecology

This is organic farming, and according to Tim, the Mother of all Farming.  Here we look at the bigger picture, we create an entire ecosystem from which to harvest food, including other species as part of this system, in a fair and equal distribution of resources.  Lindiwe Phikwane, who dug up the useless lawn in her garden to plant food, adds “Farmers must not be greedy and invade the natural environment.  Make sure there is enough for everyone to share, plant some potatoes outside of the fence for the bush pigs. What can they do if you have taken their space?”

Tim convinces us that the best way to produce food is to work with Nature, to increase biodiversity and adapt to local conditions. Man’s influence must be positive as our health is a direct reflection of our environment. For example, a forest looks after itself, without any interference from man – so look at creating a micro-climate, with everything working in harmony to create balance.

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We have all made a new friend at the workshop, which pleases Tim no end. “Always sit next to strangers to learn something new, share ideas and imagination,” he advises.

In the middle of this information-packed day, we stopped for an all-local lunch under the peach trees. Today’s meal included ujece made by Lindiwe from Champagne Valley stone-ground flour, with a colourful coleslaw with pecan nuts, lettuce, new season potatoes and green beans topped with popped amaranth, nettle pesto, pickles and chutneys, a maas dressing, washed down with elderflower cordial. All ingredients were produced within 20kms of the garden.

Mzwandile Mokoena commented “Today was an amazing day, to be honest. I never looked at slow food that way, there are so many ways to end poverty and farming is the most underrated way (by some people). Today I learnt so much about farming I think the best way is to start small. Do not expect to have a big business in a short period of time. Starting small and local. The slow food process is slow but worth the time. Tim is such an inspiring person with good knowledge.”

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On Day Two of the workshop, Tim spoke about farming as a business, imploring everyone to think of themselves as business people, no matter how small their plot.  “It is great to be sharing the fruit of your labours with the less fortunate, but how long can you do this?  You are a shareholder in the food chain. You also need to make money to educate your kids.” Do not underestimate your value.

Tim believes that Co-Ops are the most terrible idea to befall our people. “Funding is a swear word!” he exclaims.  Only 10% of Co-Ops survive and function fully.  People are seldom trained on how to run a Co-Op successfully, which leads to a high failure rate. Often people choose their friends to be part of it (regardless of their skills), copy and paste a constitution, rush to open a bank account and then think that their official Co-Op Certificate it is a ticket to funding. A far better way to set up a venture would be to select people who have a similar vision, who each bring something different to the table. One with land, another contributes a tractor, one has recently acquired knowledge and skills to offer, the next plenty of seeds and finally someone who has some money to contribute. This group creates a very specific proposal and naturally, they will get the funding they require.

It is extremely important to have a written plan for your aims and goals. Record what is planted where on what date and how much you harvest in a simple notebook.  “Time is money, money is honey, honey is sweet.” he quips.

“Be unique, find unusual things to plant – everyone grows chard and cabbage – grow something different.”  While making sure you don’t give everything away, Tim advises that you take into consideration the ability of one’s community to buy your crops and sell at a reasonable price. “Don’t price your cabbages at R15 just because the big shops sell for that.  Even if you sell for R8, you will make a profit – but remember your records!”

These are the things to take into consideration when deciding to grow food for sale:

  • Measure your land (eg 10m x 10m) and decide what you will grow (eg beetroot).
  • Prepare the land and make a note of the date that you do this.
  • Buy seeds and seedlings – note the price.
  • When you transplant them into the soil – note the date.
  • Monitor daily. Regular attention will help eliminate pests, which take advantage of plants when they are stressed.
  • Water often. We don’t drink water only once a week, so why should your plant suffer? They are like humans, have a schedule and be consistent.
  • Note when you harvest.
  • In determining the price, consider all the costs including seeds, water, your labour, organic sprays, packaging, transport.
  • Organic crops should fetch a premium – “have you priced cancer lately?” – but be fair.
  • Reinvest your profit – save some and use some to get going on your next crop.
  • Your dividend is probably only about 10% – so be cautious when giving crops away, or you will quickly have made no profit at all.

Tim shared a very vivid example:  On one hectare you can plant 45 000 head of cabbage, which takes 90 days to grow.  Even if 5000 die, you will have 40 000 left.  If you sell them at R5 each, that is R200 000.00.  Your production costs are probably not more than R50 000, so there is a profit of R150 000.00. “This is good profit, so there is no need to charge a higher price.  Mabadle abantu – let people eat – is my philosophy.”

Tim recommends planting high-value crops like cucumbers, peppers, chillies, tomatoes and brinjal rather than endless spinach.   Do some market research.  If there is a glut of one type of vegetable when you send to the market – you will get absolutely nothing for it and your efforts will be wasted. Being able to sell directly in your community and neighbourhood is a great idea.

You are the brand.   If you sell to the shops, make sure that not only the shop label is displayed – your name should be there too.

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Tim believes we should aim for food sovereignty, not just food security.  Not only do we have the right to good food, we need the freedom to choose the food we want and decide how it is produced.  In this way, we create diversity and build resilience.

Passionate about creating young farmers, Tim works with ECD centres at schools to teach little children how to grow food and herbs organically. “If they understand the food system and value good quality food, this sharpens their appetite for choosing agriculture as a career.” To make sure that his programme is successful, Tim also trains the teacher and parents and keeps in close contact with the children. Watch Tim in action. 

Our all-local lunch today included Ntombenhle’s famous vetkoek, filled with a stew of sugar beans (grown in Impendle) and sweet potatoes (grown in Camperdown), lettuce from Mlu Khanyile’s garden up the road, beetroot salad, sou sou chutney and mint cordial.

Lunga Dlungwana commented “Tim’s story is very inspiring – from what led him to start doing what he does, to how he’s engaged with the community. His passion and love for the people and his belief that everyone must be taken care of, including the wild animals, is one that resonated with me the most. I could easily sit and listen to him talk for many hours. Such a great communicator.”

On day three, we listened intently and made notes as Tim shared his Top Tips to get the best out of our crops.

“What happens when you don’t charge your phone?” he asked, “the same goes for soil – it needs recharging.” He reminds us that we are eating nutrients, that plants suck the nutrients from the soil, so it is vital to keep building soil.  Manure is great to do this and there certainly was plenty available around us in Mpophomeni.  Do not leave manure uncovered as it loses nutrients (particularly nitrogen) fast in sunlight. Tim recommended we add manure to our beds at sunset to avoid this happening.

Make your beds 1m wide, so that you can reach to the middle from each side. Do not ever walk on your beds as this compresses the soil.

Do not plant seeds too deeply. Many seeds, like spinach and beetroot, do well when first soaked overnight in water.

Don’t sow plants the same family next to one another (eg tomatoes, brinjals) as they attract the same pests. Rather plant basil with tomatoes – they are great companions.

Some plants can be sown directly into beds – beans, squash, mealies, carrots and potatoes. Tomatoes, chillies and cabbage should be grown in nursery beds before being transplanted.

Transplanting is best done in the evening.  Wet the area you will be working in. Keep seedlings in a bucket of water to prevent the roots from drying out.  Ensure the hole for the seedling is as long as the root – do not bend the roots. Press down and water well.

Crop rotation is important – plant high feeders (leaf crops), then legumes (nitrogen fixers) then low feeders (rood crops). This helps ensure healthy plants and reduces pest-attracting stress.

Do not plant crops in tyres.  The heavy metals and chemicals leach into the soil and are absorbed by roots, poisoning your food.

Mulch: a very important element in your garden that suppresses weeds, controls evaporation, decomposes to include more organic material in your soil, add nutrients, improves fertility and soil texture and prevents fruits like tomatoes or strawberries from touching the soil and rotting.

Irrigate:  a 2l plastic bottle, with a hole in it, filled with water and placed next to your plant, will drip-feed water directly to the roots.

Potatoes:  lay khakibos branches in the trenches.  Ferment khakibos in water to make a nutrient-rich plant food to spray on crops.

Cucumbers: trim the tendrils when they have grown longer than 1m from the plant roots. This encourages the plant to produce more shoots. Prune the leaves to encourage better quality fruit.

Pumpkins: If you want to win the local Pumpkin Competition with an ENORMOUS pumpkin, this is the secret: Dig 1m x 1m x 1m deep pits and fill with all your organic waste – cuttings, kitchen waste, grass clippings, manure.  Plant one seed. Trim the vines when they reach 1m from the root to encourage more energy to go into your prize-winning pumpkin!

Tomatoes:  remove the first flowers to allow the plant to develop stronger stems before fruiting. Same goes for brinjals and peppers.

Fruit Trees: plant herbs under them like marjoram or comfrey. Remember to water them – at least 20l weekly, mixed with wood ash.  Add manure around the base of the tree every 3 months.

Weed tea: ferment pioneer weeds (especially khakibos and nettles) for two weeks – add chilli, garlic and some grape vinegar make it a pest deterrent too – dilute and spray on your crops and fruit trees.

Rabbit and goat manure is an excellent food for vegetable crops.

Moles: deter them by planting tulbaghia and lemongrass around your veggies. Make a simple tool from a plastic bottle with flaps cut into it, stuck on top of a stick and inserted into the mole hole. As the wind blows, spinning the bottle, the vibrations deter the moles.

Cutworms: add Epsom salts to your beds as cutworms indicate a lack of magnesium in the soil.

Aphids: spray with a weak mixture of sunlight soap. Plant nasturtiums to attract them away from your crops.

Lizards and skinks are important for keeping pests under control.

Guinea fowl and geese are great at keeping rats at bay and provide great security – no need to high fences and alarms.

Red wrigglers: earthworms turn waste into the soil from free.  They can be a ‘cash crop’ too – 1kg of worms sells for R1000.

Bees:  include hives in your garden to pollinate the plants and harvest real honey.  Bee stings are the best medicine for arthritis.

Save seeds:  use wood ash and eucalyptus leaves to prevent insects destroying your precious seeds. Store in glass in a cool dark place.

A few years ago, Tim met a woman from Soweto who had been saving her own seeds for 48 years. “These are diamonds!” he told her and after trading seeds with her, set up a Seed Bank.  “We gave away 300 packets of seeds to get people started, asking that they return double the amount of seed to the bank when they harvested. The system is built on trust.” Seed saving is the key to building food sovereignty.

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Tim sells fresh veggies directly from his garden and encourages his customers to come and pick their own fruit and veg.  “This is the moment when their relationship with food improves. Now they know who grew it, how it was produced and where it came from.  This is so important as mostly we are disconnected from our food.”

Tim reminds us that we are role models in our communities. “Encourage youngsters to spend time in the garden with you – feeding the chickens, adding potato peels to the worm bin, watering the seedlings and picking peaches.  They will learn patience, fall in love with this way of life and strengthen our communities and food systems.”

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Over lunch, Luke Foster asked Tim what his most useful tool is – after his hands. “My head,” he replied, “you can achieve anything with your head and your hands.”

Today we feasted on sorghum salad with apple and celery, summer slice made with Mlu’s potatoes, courgette and spring onions, just pulled carrots (also grown by Mlu), pickled spekboom, pumpkin stem salad, Lindiwe’s artisan bread and nettle cordial.

At the end of the day, we shared seeds to grow and resolved to continue to build our communities through good, clean food.

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Lihle Mavuso felt inspired and motivated by the course. “This is such good information, especially because I am just starting my farming journey.”

Bongiwe Mpolo from Mafakathini was so pleased she made the decision to come to this workshop. “It was a good opportunity. I love gardening, it helps me relax and takes my stress away. Now I have more knowledge.”

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Tim thoroughly enjoyed meeting enthusiastic gardeners from Mpophomeni and Mafakathini.  He also visited the mushroom growing project and food garden at the IBM church and Ntombenhle Mtambo’s Permaculture garden, spent time with our local Seed Man, Deon Bean, attended the Reko Howick market where he connected joyfully with other farmers and finally, inspired the Midlanders who had gathered to establish a new Slow Food Community.  What a week!

“I am falling in love with KZN” he declared before heading home to Orange Farm, “there is such good energy here – and amazing food.”

This workshop was sponsored by sales of Mnandi – a taste of Mpophomeni. See all the photos here.

Need some agroecology inspiration or farming advice in your community? Tim Abaa comes highly recommended.  Contact him on 082 639 6621 or timnectarbees@gmail.com.