Thinking out of the box

2013-11-28 00:00

モIT feels like I receive a gift each time a box arrives,ヤ says Kim Ward about her weekly order of organic vegetables, which usually arrives together with flowers, a recipe or two and tags inscribed with uplifting words.

Itï¾’s certainly more exciting than taking home a bag of items from the supermarket. Thereï¾’s the element of surprise, for a start. With many schemes this varies according to the season and whatï¾’s available, so you may unpack artichokes to cries of delight, or groan at a big bag of turnips.

Millions of consumers concerned with health and food safety have driven a surge in demand for organic produce, with The Crop Site reporting recently that the global organic food market is expected to grow from $57,5 billion (R582?billion) in 2010 to $104,7 billion in 2015. Despite this, demand supply doesnï¾’t always match it, and although many supermarkets now sell organic produce, their ranges are often limited and not consistent.

Many discerning consumers are turning to the old-fashioned vegetable-box system instead. Usually, this involves a person or co-op supplying a variety of seasonal produce, which is delivered or gathered together for collection on a regular basis. And itï¾’s no longer just about veggies. Some schemes allow customers to choose from a list of products that may include meat, eggs, dairy and even branded items from a shop. In the UK, the Soil Association reported this year that box schemes and home deliveries are growing, as people choose convenience and expanded ranges over what supermarkets can provide.

From a local economic and environmental point of view, these schemes tick the right boxes. Because they are produced and consumed in the same area, they have a low carbon footprint; they keep money in the local economy and provide jobs; and because they rely on organic farming methods, can improve soil quality and have minimal impact on water systems.

But, as interviews with purveyors of three KZN schemes?ラ?Earthmother Organic in Durban and Midlands-based Living Food Gardens and Dovehouse Organics?ラ?testify, making money from them is still not easy. Each of the schemes has developed along its own path, innovating and doing whatメs necessary to survive and prosper. For many of their customers, this uniqueness is whatメs appealing. Ward says the boxes she gets from Living Food Gardens are モso beautifully put together, with attention to detail and minimal packaging. I love the fact there is no styrofoam tray and cling film. I like the challenge of cooking what is in season and making the most of what arrives.ヤ

IF you talk about chemical-free produce in Durban, the name Earthmother Organic is likely to pop up. An oasis of tranquillity on a busy stretch of Bulwer Road, the shop is a pioneer in the industry. Eva Muller — “I’m Eva, please don’t call me Muller” — started the shop 13 years ago with her sister Doris, and describes it as an “organic superette”.

She started growing vegetables after moving from Johannesburg to a plot in Assagay, and progressed to selling from the back of her Corsa, then door to door and at farmers’ markets. Landing a contract with Rapunzel, a German organic-food range, provided a springboard into the formal retail sector and Eva and Doris opened a shop. Being sensitive to their niche market has been important to their survival, and they have focused on being a convenient “one-stop organic shop”, selling everything from salad dressing to soap.

Their veggie-box system has developed to provide customers with what they want. E-mails are sent once a week saying what’s available on a first-come, first-served basis, and other products such as bread and yogurt can be added. Boxes are collected from the shop.

The business has worked hard to establish links with small farmers who can supply them. “We’re extremely well-networked. That’s what’s sustained us,” says Eva.

“We have over 500 small farmers supplying us, although 90% of them are dormant at any one time.” She says she’s involved with farmers’ groups, going to places like kwaMakhuta to work with rural producers on developing what the business needs. Although some of their suppliers are certified organic, the emerging growers don’t obtain certification because it’s too expensive and time-consuming. “I see what local farmers are doing,” says Eva. “This business runs on trust.”

• See www.earthmotherorgan

ic.com

“WE’RE not in it for the money, it’s a passion,” says Amanda Phoenix about the vegetable box project she runs with Carol Segal. With their goal being to “get more people to grow their own food”, their scheme is more social entrepreneurship than business, and teaching is part of it. They hold regular classes at their depot in Boston.

The pair live on different farms in the Boston area and their venture started with growing their own vegetables. They began combining the surplus and selling it in boxes, and it grew from there. They now have five rural growers — who they’ve been helping to establish organic gardens — as well as a few local farmers and friends producing different vegetables for them. This provides for a maximum of about 25 boxes a week, salad packs and greens for juicing. Their boxes are put together with whatever’s available each week, although you can stipulate if you don’t want something. Customers receive a text message on a Monday morning asking if they want a box that week, which they collect from central points in Howick, Hilton and Maritzburg.

“We’re very strict,” says Phoenix about checking out suppliers. “There’s no fertiliser used or spraying. We don’t even buy compost.” Instead, natural sprays, worm tea and manure from rural areas are used. “It’s not really that profitable, but it helps us buy seedlings for the growers.”

Phoenix qualified as an architect and has also worked in the fashion industry, and as a shoe designer. Her interest in promoting agriculture and healthy eating comes from her involvement in an organisation called Academy for Future Science, which she describes as bringing science and spiritualism together.

Segal, who once worked as a trainer for a bank, consults for Women’s Learning and Training Programme (WLTP), visiting 50 gardens a week and advising rural women on how to grow vegetables.

Phoenix says their customers like the “Woolies” treatment they give their vegetables, cleaning and trimming them.

“We go the extra mile. It’s a pain but we take care.”

“IT’S tough,” says Paul Duncan about the business of alternative produce. The upside is that since moving onto a farm in the Karkloof with his wife Shereen 13 years ago, “there’s definitely more demand for organic”. The Duncans have tried many things — cultivation, selling, training and running two shops and a restaurant — all centred around what they grow.

Paul farms according to permaculture principles and teaches this and organic farming to individuals, NGOs and other groups. They’ve also been selling vegetable boxes on and off since “about 2004”.

Shereen says that when they started out, the boxes were a standard mixture of what was available, but they changed this in response to customer feedback. “Some had their own gardens and wanted to be able to choose their vegetables.” Customers are now able to select from an e-mailed list that’s sent out each week, which includes fruit and vegetables, chickens, eggs, dairy and prepared meals. The system can have its pitfalls. “It has to be a convenience thing,” says Paul, while noting that more choice means more complications and chances of mistakes. Boxes are dropped off for collection at five pick-up points in Howick, Hilton and Pietermaritzburg.

Dovehouse has joined forces with a few other farmers to form the Midlands Organic Growers Association, which sells through the shop on their farm, markets and the box system. They are also selling in Durban. Their produce is not certified but Paul says they are setting up an alternative Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), which will be managed by the farmers and any interested individuals or bodies. “It’s transparent and cuts down on the cost of being certified. It also gives the community a feeling of being involved.”

• See www.dovehouse.co.za

‘We have over 500 small farmers supplying us, although 90% of them are dormant at any one time.’

‘We’re very strict. There’s no fertiliser used or spraying. We don’t even buy compost.’

‘It has to be a convenience thing.’

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