I sometimes introduce myself as a “nomadic farmer”. It is not quite correct, but as in all exaggerations there is an element of truth in the statement. Every summer, or rather … every winter … in November or December, when you can feel the cold creaking into every nook and crevice in the northern hemisphere, I do like the swallow: I head south. To be more precise to a little farm on large fruit and wine farm in Elgin just outside of Cape Town (South Africa). While my wife was working on her PhD about the indigenous San people at the university, I grew tomatoes. And peaches, and figs, and citruses, and… The farm is owned by the farmer (and brain surgeon) Paul Cluver, and together we have established a small agricultural project where we do everything that normal industrial agricultural wisdom tells us we shouldn’t. The only way to make agriculture profitable is to find out what you grow best and to specialize on that commodity. We do exactly the opposite – we cultivate diversity.
We have called our project Garden of Elgin, because it is a garden, in Elgin, but also because it reminds us a little of the Garden of Eden.
One part of the garden is our orchard where we have tried to find as many different trees as possible, in order to have as many flavors as possible. The trees are still in their infancy (or early adolescence) but when they grow up we will have about 30 different types of oranges, more than 40 different types of peaches and other stone fruit, and a dozen different lemons. We have quinces, custard apples, various varieties of figs and pomegranates.
Another important part of our garden is the vegetables. One year we had more than a hundred different types of tomatoes. We had yellow tomatoes, red tomatoes, brown tomatoes, striped tomatoes. They were sweet and tart, intense and watery, firm and mealy.
At the offset we had a very clear idea of what we were doing. “What we need to find out is how to do it” we told each other. We wanted to grow the best peach, the best lemon, the best tomato. To find that out we had to grow them all. As we have progressed I have come to realize that this is not the true aim or our endeavor. The measure of our success is not whether we find something that is better but the fact that it is different. If you have more than ten types of lemons and they all taste a little different – one is more acidic, one more fruity, one more aromatic – then you come to realize that a lemon is not just a lemon. A lemon can be many different things, and its qualities – like a good wine – transcend what can easily be described as acidic, fruity or aromatic.
This last tomato season we had tomato salad every day. Each day I would prepare it more or less the same way: I would slice tomatoes, sprinkle them with some salt, add some olive oil (from a farm nearby), maybe some herbs from the “herb circle” of the garden. And every day the tomato salad would taste different. The seasons changes and with that the flavor of tomatoes from the same plant. Add to that more than a hundred different types of tomatoes, and you have an infinite number of different-tasting tomato salads.
South Africa can be a quite difficult country to live in. I have spent a lot of time in Africa but I have never experienced such dramatic differences between rich and poor, black and white. Life, for many, is hard, sometimes even brutal. It is not always good to know how to relate to this, or know what to do about it, and it is easy to lose hope when you see the shanty towns growing at a faster pace than new houses that are being put up. The advances that are being made can be dwarfed, become almost invisible, although many advances have been made since 1994.
One thing i do find inspiring is the farm Thandi, bordering to the farm on which we live. Thandi is Xhosa and means – in a rough translation – “nurturing love”. The project was established as a Black Empowerment Project (BEP) in 1995 when Paul Cluver donated 100 hectares of his farm to workers that had previously worked for the state forestry and convinced the state to do the same. Many of the BEP’s have struggled but Thandi is a success story that has had an impact, also outside South Africa. It now consists of several different farms, and the Fairtrade certified wines are sold in a number of countries. And, by the way, they are delicious. (My favourites, are the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir.)
You can learn more about the Paul Cluver wines and Thandi here: .
Photo: Mette Randem.