Close to the city of Cape Town, between the vineyards at the foot of the Helderberg Mountains, husband-and-wife team, Alan and Eugene Simons, run two separate, but connected, businesses, growing and supplying vegetables, and seedlings, to the local market.
The couple are a good example of what can be achieved on a small piece of land (half a hectare) with enough drive, knowledge and determination. While they work for profit, the purpose of work is also important to them and they are passionate about uplifting other farmers and farm workers in their community.
Alan studied agriculture at the Elsenburg Agricultural College near Stellenbosch. After graduating, he worked on a commercial vegetable farm for 15 years. Here, he got the skills, the necessary experience, and the network so valuable to any farmer, especially to those who want to start their own agri-businesses.
In 2004 Alan hired the piece of land he now farms and started his own business. Trading as Alan’s Veg, he grows his own vegetables like tomatoes, egg plant, chilli and sweet peppers and spinach just to name a few in tunnels, buys in from other small farmers and packs the produce for retailers in the area.
Eugene had a career in the corporate world, but influenced by her farming husband, she grew to love agriculture. More as an interest, than as a business, she started supplying seedlings to her husband’s operation. Then, in 2013, she borrowed one of his tunnels to grow her production ability, and started her own business Algina. At this stage, she was still working full-time. In her spare time she worked on constructing tables and the right seedling set-up, with Alan’s insight and guidance.
Her first breakthrough came when she pulled off a deal to supply seedlings to a Phillipi vegetable farmer.
Today she plants 7 million seedlings a year and also provides potted herbs and container gardens to her customers and plans to expand her operation.
In 2015 she won an award for Top Entrepreneur of the Western Cape, in the smallholder section.
THE SUPPLY CHAIN
The two businesses cater for several sections of the vegetable production and supply chain. Eugene sells vegetable and herb seedlings wholesale to growers, and markets plants for container gardening.
Alan packs his own produce and that of other smallholders in the area and markets to the local vegetable retailer and other shops in the town of Somerset West, and also grows vegetables according to specifications for restaurants.
“By adding value we can pay these farmers a premium which makes a real difference to their income,” says Allan.
OTHER SMALLHOLDER FARMERS
Alan and Eugene provide their supplier smallholders with plants and planting materials. They offer soil sampling services and advice on improving soil texture and correcting soil pH as well as the right application of fertiliser. This ensures that Alan buys in good quality vegetables.
“We are part of the process, from planting all the way to harvesting. We have an agreement to buy 60% of their harvest. The remaining 40% they are free to sell at outlets of their choice,” Alan explains.
The advisory process takes some energy and effort because the small-scale growers don’t always understand how a planting cycle works.
“A common mistake smaller farmers make is that they want to plant the entire land to crops, at the same time.” This makes no financial sense because there is no income flow from one harvest to the next he explains.
Alan shares his skills and knowledge with fellow farmers and is a registered mentor at the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. He provides recommendations and technical information on basic vegetable farming practices.
Eugene says that she now has more insight on the local operating systems and the conditions farmers must deal with. “It makes management so much easier for me because I can prepare the seedlings according to soil type, irrigation and on farm conditions.”
Alan believes that smallholder farmers should attend workshops, farmers’ days and demonstrations, using all the available help from experienced professional farmers as well as the technical advisers from agricultural companies.
Eugene works at MediClinic’s corporate division from 5.30am until 2.30pm to sustain the couple’s cash flow.
“One of the lessons I have learnt from my farmer husband is that you should always have stable income to be prepared for times when the cash flow is low, so that you have some room to move.”
She makes decisions on seedling type according to the season and the needs of her clients.
Apart from her regular customers, Eugene supplies seedlings to the Western Cape Department of Agriculture. The department distributes these seedlings to its smallholder farmer programmes and plants in sustainable gardens and vegetable projects.
One of her regular customers is Casidra, (Cape Agency for Sustainable Integrated Development in Rural Areas), an organisation which supplies seedlings to several development projects.
The couple advises farmers linked to the organisation, its customers and supplier farmers. This service includes information about planting seasons, choosing cultivars and timing for the market.
Eugene says the current drought in the Western Cape Province has had a significant effect on their business.
“Seedling orders have diminished considerably; people are buying more often but they are buying less seedlings at a time.”
Alan has reduced his planting area and has planted some of his open field crops into tunnels to conserve water.
MAKING A MARK IN THE COMMUNITY
The greatest motivator for both these businesses is to tackle the food shortage in their community, says Alan.
“Let’s be honest, there is a shortage in our country. Our aim is for every family to have access to cheap but healthy food. I mean, how can a little guy be educated on an empty stomach? The elderly in our communities also need help because many of them cannot afford to buy food.”
Eugene addresses the issue with container garden options in which her customers can grow their own vegetables. For people who don’t have gardening skills there are containers with plants already bearing fruit or in leaf.
“Our clients can then pick the fruit, feed the plant and see how their next harvest grows.”
Eugene says many customers come back for the containers. They enjoy picking their own food, cooking it and seeing it grow again.
ORGANIC AND BIODEGRADABLE
Although their aim is to keep their farming practices as organic as possible, their farm is located in the vineyard.
“The chemical spray used in the vineyards means that we can’t market our products as organic,” says Eugene.
To cut down on plastics, she offers biodegradable pots to her customers.
There is a high pest load in the area, and aphids are a real problem. To deal with this, the couple follows a strict spraying programme for seedlings and vegetables, using organically certified sprays only. They scout every alternate day to check for insect damage to plants, and treat accordingly.
The spraying programme and follow-up guidelines are shared with buyers.
There is a lot the smallholder farmers can learn about pests, says Alan. The first step is to become familiar with pests that are common in your own area, so that you can identify and treat before too much damage is done to the crop.
Alan and Eugene sell their produce at two local farmers’ markets, the Paardevlei market and the Windmeul farmers’ market in Somerset West. Marketing like this, says Eugene, means that they can interact directly with their customers.
Expansion plans mean that they need a bigger piece of land, which they are currently looking for.
“We want to expand the businesses from the planting process, through harvesting to the processing side of things,” says Alan.
The would like to diversify into livestock and are looking at poultry, cattle, sheep or pigs. A bigger nursery with a medicinal plant project is on the cards.
“We want to be an example of what a smallholder farmer can do, especially when you diversify.”
Alan says expansion and a more diverse production base will mean a more stable cash flow on the farm. This will enable the business to keep personnel employed throughout the year.
Part of their vision for the future is to go into agro-tourism and education, to give urban children a taste of farm life.
Even though they have free access to a 4 million litre dam nearby, they are currently installing an irrigation system to circulate water and reduce their use. They have already built a storage dam and plan to cover the tunnel floors with plastic so that runoff can go back to the dam.
LESSONS FOR SMALL FARMERS
Alan says that aspirant farmers should remember that farming is not a ‘get rich quick’ business.
” In the beginning, everything you earn must go back into the business.”
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