2019 went by in a flash! This year was largely about maintaining the many new enterprises we had started in previous years. While each had steady growth, the learning was more about working with these enterprises as integrated systems and putting theory into practice, learning about the impact of scale – where we went too big too quickly, or not quickly enough, or the impact increasing animals has on the land, the waxing and waning of sales while production remains constant. We had times of personal hardship, growth, and joy, times of business hardship, growth, and joy.
We are starting to feel the impact of the last four years on our energy levels – the number of projects and enthusiasm is starting to exceed the energy! The days just seem to speed up – I even missed our newsletter blog in November – the first in three years!
At the end of another year, we endeavour to live a life of more balance going forward, not just all time and energy going into the business, but to not lose ourselves in all of this too.
Probably the biggest change for us in 2019 was REKO. We started this year with having just set up the first REKO Ring in Africa, in Nottingham Road. REKO is a Facebook based market where local producers post weekly adverts, customers place orders, and everyone meets once a week to collect their orders directly from the producer. This is easily accessible to most, being online, it means producers only need to pack and haul what was ordered, customers are guaranteed the products they order. It works well for small scale producers developing consistency and gives customers access to local, ethically produced food. In January, we set up a REKO Ring in Hilton, and in February, assisted in setting up one in Howick.
These markets have been game-changers for us as market streams, and for networking with fellow producers and consumers. The administration of these groups has been a tough balance – the needs of consumers and producers, the expectations, the needs of our business and that of REKO – for a large part of the year, we spent more on advertising REKO than our own business! Overall it has been an experience of growth for us personally and our business.
One of our greatest lessons this year has been that you cannot please all of the people, all of the time. This same lesson has applied with REKO, our products, and with our guest cottages.
Another of our great lessons this year was marketing. With the growth of REKO, we were suddenly sharing our products with the Midlands. We needed to learn to communicate about our ethical, regenerative practices. We very quickly learnt that labels mean absolutely nothing! The best gift a farmer can give customers is to answer questions. That is the only way a customer will be able to truly understand how their food and food products were raised/produced. Many, many people will try to claim labels that sound good but are anything but the truth. Get to know your farmer!!!
Through REKO we became members of Slow Food, forming the Midlands Regenerative Producers group. Slow Food promotes and supports good, clean, fair food. I was even invited to attend a Slow Food conference in Kenya along as one of two delegates from South Africa!
We spent the year marvelling at every meal – progressing from a homegrown item on our plates a day, to sourced from REKO to completely homegrown! Every meal has a story, a person that we know and love who grew our food, if not from our own backyard!
Pasture Raised Eggs
We began our journey into the world of pasture raised eggs on a larger scale. Up until January, we had a small prototype egg mobile that we pulled around the garden with some 20 hens and a patient rooster, as we learnt about mobile chicken management. We built a full size egg mobile, added 50 hens to the flock and towards the end of the year, we added another 100 hens. We experienced the joy of watching these hens come into lay, watching their excitement at being moved to fresh grass, their curiosity as they explored every corner of their new paddocks. We had some heartache too with unfortunate losses, some management errors, and some wildlife interference. We learnt that nature too can be cruel and violent.
The egg mobile is moved every couple of days. Working with mobile animals means that there is no room for a break – if the animals stay just too long, the land may take too long to recover and not be ready when the animals need to pass through again. Between moving the layers, the broilers, and the pigs, we were kept very busy. It all sounds very ideal but the reality is early starts every day, whether it is Tuesday, Sunday, or Christmas.
We then learnt about selling so many eggs! We learnt how the risk is often carried by the producer – we have to produce the product, but at any point a customer or restaurant can bail on their commitment. The producer is still committed to the well being of the animal – feeding, moving, caring – and the eggs still keep coming!
We ran our first Adopt a Hen project, with a great response! We had hens adopted locally and even internationally, with the eggs being delivered to local drop off points or donated for those in other parts of the country and beyond. The donated eggs went to local children in need as egg-cellent protein sources.
Our vegetable production waxed and waned depending on the demand of the animals in our care. We enjoyed some delicious produce, some foraged, some grown, collected seed, sowed seed and harvested.
We continued to battle against irregular rainfall, poor fertility, baboons, aphids and all sorts of pests. We learnt more about the microbiology above ground and below ground, about cover crops, and various weeds. We had beds drowned and flushed away, beds dry up, weeds take over, and started beds from scratch more times than I care to count!
Our kitchen garden still continues to supply most of our vegetables. We learnt that works on a small scale in our kitchen garden doesn’t always work on a larger scale in the market garden!
Pasture Raised Chicken
We expanded our broiler production to batches of 250 birds at a time. We found an antibiotic free feed for both layers and broilers. We created a brooder room to give our chicks a warm and toasty start.
Again this meant learning about scale and how what works for 100 doesn’t always work for 200 or 250. We learnt about raising broilers at altitude, about building gut bacteria with probiotics, and the nuances of management.
We learnt about more about grass rotations with the increased number of birds on each site. We ran out of chicken, we had an oversupply, and we ran out again. We are still learning about the right markets and getting the supply right for a variable demand.
Forest Raised Pork
We sold our first pork products in March! Originally our pork was sold before we even started but we again carried the risk of changes in situations and suddenly had an excess of pork. Fortunately the response at REKO was very positive and we were sold out just as quickly! We had to rapidly learn about pork cuts, sausage recipes, natural bacon, and a whole host of processing questions. We got two more batches of piglets over the course of the year and learnt about raising pigs in the forest, their remarkable foraging, weeding, rooting abilities, their adorable snouts, and interactive nature.
We adopted Lady, a Duroc sow, who has become a surrogate mommy pig for our new piglets when they arrive. She teaches them the ropes before they go out into the forest. Lady keeps our nursery chickens safe too.
The geese had goslings – one male, one female.
We converted the old container into a feed storage area, dry and rat-free!
We converted the loft into a farm shop, open to guests and neighbours. We also started offering produce boxes to order, filled with goodies from our farm, or from REKO producers.
We converted an unused room into a communal kitchen for two suites which meant all of our rooms were equipped for self catering. Guests can purchase from the farm shop for a full farm experience!
We checked guests in and out, at all days and hours. We met some wonderfully inspiring people. We experienced a taste of the challenges faced by the tourism industry as a result of the weakening economy. Every year this forces us to be more creative, more unique in our offering. We learnt that our offering is not to everyone’s tastes and we have to be ok with that.
We hosted our first tour group – cyclists touring the Midlands who stopped off at Bramleigh for a farm-to-fork dinner and breakfast, followed by a farm tour.
We tasted some of our own produce in restaurants!
We built a wood fired pizza oven for guests to use as part of our self catering offering. This doubles up as our smoker too.
We gave loads of farm tours to guests, and had a number of open farm tours. Together with the REKO Notties producers, we visited each other’s farms. We also finally visited Farmer Angus at Spier Wine Estate! Very inspiring and helpful.
We did some work in the garden… long overdue!
Our poor dogs waited and waited and waited for so many days, patiently watching us work until it was time for a walk. Sometimes they even took themselves on a walk – for hours or days which was very stressful!
We watched Summer turn to Autumn, to Winter, to Spring, each bringing with it a new beauty, a new set of jobs, a new focus, new seasonal foods.
There were flooding days – literally and figuratively. There were sunsets and sunrises. Thunderstorms and rainbows.
Overall, another year of great growth, of learning, of ideas. We look forward to the new year and the new decade! Thank you for sharing in our journey.