Words: Sue Derwent
I believe that everyone has a right to wholesome food, produced without harm to the environment, and we hope that we can make this a reality,” says Nikki Brighton of the Dargle Local Living organisation in the rolling green hills of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. She has invited me to visit the beautiful Dargle Valley to see how people here have embraced the concept of Living Locally.
Dargle Local Living came about after members of the Dargle Conservancy, as part of their community gatherings programme, began screening a series of films dealing with issues such as climate change, peak oil, sustainability and transition. Local residents found the films informative and inspiring and, recognising that it is necessary to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and the industrial food chain, responded by making real lifestyle changes. This largely entailed a new awareness and a commitment to living as locally as possible.
“We are fortunate that our beautiful valley is home to many small producers of vegetables, trout, chicken, honey, cheese, herbs, pork, milk and eggs,” explains Nikki. “Most homesteads have a food garden to supply their kitchens and share the surplus with neighbours. Local restaurants are also committed to supporting local producers and using seasonal, organic food as much as possible, serving food that satisfies your conscience as much as your taste buds.
“In the Dargle there are plenty of folk who are perfectly happy to do without eggs for a few weeks while hens follow their natural spring cycle and sit around broodily all day hoping to hatch their eggs. Others will wait patiently for Piccolo the cow to finish weaning her new calf, Cello, forgoing the extra milk which would be just perfect for making yogurt. Gathering wild spring greens in the fields is an activity eagerly anticipated for much of the winter. This is really what slow food and local living is all about, not making unreasonable demands, taking only what is needed and being mindful of the entire process”.
Nikki finished by pointing out that, “Food is actually a conservation issue, as biodiversity loss in areas affected by drought, crop failure, poverty and other adverse conditions is enormous. Of course, Local Living needs to include everyone in our community – not just the foodies. We also need to think seriously about building resilience in surrounding areas too if we are to avoid some of the scary effects of climate change.”
After hot tea and home-baked biscuits in her pretty home and a potter around her abundant veggie garden, Nikki walks me to my car. She hands me a hand-drawn map on bright green paper, ten small brown paper bags filled with seeds, a bag of home-made pasta, pecan nuts from a local tree, a packet of her home-made biscuits and a sack of hay for mulching my city roof garden. I will be staying at Corrie Lynn guest cottage and she smiles and suggests that I don’t buy any food, but rather see what I can make for my supper from things I get given during my visits to various farmers in the district. I chuckle nervously as I set off down the dirt road.
For Gilly Robartes of Wana Farm, ‘living locally’ is a natural extension of her interest in farming, which began while she was growing up in Kenya. Starting with one dexter cow on their Midlands farm (“To keep the grass down and provide a little milk”), her small yogurt and cheese business has grown organically as, over time, she acquired Jersey cows and yogurt making skills. Gilly now buys in additional milk from neighbours to keep up with the demand for her delicious yogurt, cottage and feta cheeses and thick cream products that Wana Farm now supplies to a number of local outlets in the Midlands. Gilly also shares Nikki’s generosity of spirit, sharing of information, skills and products, which seem to be an integral part of Local Living – and I left for the next farm laden with plain and fruit yogurts, cottage cheeses and a tub of thick cream, as well as some tips on how to make my own yogurt at home.
Down the road from Wana Farm is Lane’s End Farm, and Susi Anderson, another Local Living enthusiast. She and her husband live with any number of species of ducks and chickens, making up the resident population of more than 120 fowls living on the farm along with a handful of pigs, cows, horses, cats, dogs and goats. Having worked in conservation for many years, the Andersons love living in the country but admit that it is exceptionally hard work. Susi also supplies surplus milk to Gilly’s dairy enterprise.
As it turns out, Local Living is, of course, more than just producing local goodies and caring for the environment. It’s also about community and friendship and Susi had me in awe and hysterics as she explained how, in the absence of their husbands, she and Gilly had undertaken the somewhat daunting and challenging annual task of slaughtering and butchering two of their pigs. After a walk around the lovely farm bordering the Umgeni River, I left the Anderson’s with veggies from Susi’s organic garden, a few seedlings and a tray of lovely fresh eggs.
Across the way at Corrie Lynn, the Fowlers have been on their big commercial farm for a couple of generations, dating back to the mid-1800s. However, after being inspired by the Dargle conservancy movies and a course in making compost heaps at Dovehouse Organic Farm, Robin and Tinks Fowler reconsidered the way they were farming, got stuck into making compost heaps and revamped their existing veggie garden with a surrounding chicken run. The concept of Local Living extended to the staff, who were so inspired that many established their own compost heaps and organic veg gardens at their own homes.
My second last stop was with Barend and Helen Booysen at Crab Apple Farm. By the time I arrived, the heavy mist had turned into a light drizzle and the temperature had dropped. Barend hustled me into the farmhouse kitchen, popped down a wooden stool in front of the huge wood-fired Aga stove and handed me a bowl of delicious home-made vegetable soup. He cut a large slice of home-baked bread and opened a bottle of gooseberry jam he had made the day before. This is local living at its best.
After chatting about the history of this beautiful farm and Helen’s passion for horses and carriages, we decided it was dry enough for a quick tour of the gardens, the indigenous forest, the stables and the vegetable green house. We passed the paddocks of horses and the ‘we-supply-the-green-parrots’ pecan nut trees and, after peeping into the pretty and popular ivy-covered wedding chapel, came to Barend’s compost heap, which turns out to be a bank of organic material mixed with horse manure, at the bottom of which is the amazing veggie garden. I left Crab Apple laden with three bags of horse compost, fresh gooseberries, and a bottle of home-made gooseberry jam, spinach, broccoli and a number of other items plucked straight from the garden.
My last stop was with the dignified and humorous Baba Sokhela, who works on a large farm and lives with his wife on a small plot just up the road from Nikki. He grows much of his own food, and as we stood admiring his wonderful vegetable garden and his free-range chickens, he spoke with delight about low tillage and other old traditional methods of farming. Shaking his head sadly, he pondered on how many people in the world no longer seem to care about growing things to eat, and how few of them even understand where their food comes from, much less how to grow it.