Focusing on organic in Minnesota and South Africa

Women farmers from Limpopo province swap notes with counterparts in the Twin Cities

Charlene Smith By Charlene Smith

Farmer Meisie Ramabuda visiting the Twin Cities (Charlene Smith)

Minneapolis — Harry Brooks was 12 and had completed six grades at school when his widowed mother gave him a horse and cart, some vegetables and $15. Today his grandson, Philip, runs his legacy, one of the largest fresh cut fruit and vegetable distributors in the upper Midwest.

Harry’s story resonated with the eight South African women farmers, funded by their government, who visited H. Brooks and Company in New Brighton, a suburb of the Twin Cities, last week at the invitation of the State of Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture.

In some ways young Harry’s experience echoes that of Meisie Ramabuda of Sithagu Farm in South Africa’s Limpopo province, near the border with Zimbabwe. Meisie left school after only four years of education and worked as a household helper until 2008, when two things happened: Meisie lost her job and her sister died, leaving her a small farm, $1,000 and four children in addition. Meisie already had four children of her own.

As a widow Meisie had to do something fast to care for her large brood. She ploughed the $1,000 into planting tomatoes, then sought funding. A local mine gave her a $10,000 grant and a large distributor promised to buy her produce. But when the distributor failed to collect a ton of tomatoes in May, the fruit rotted on the vine: Meisie was out of pocket.

Meisie’s lesson is one that all six South African visitors, a number of them now wealthy farmers, have experienced at one time or another. As their host Philip Brooks put it: “My father said you can never lean back in the chair and put your feet up because there is always someone waiting to kick the chair.”

Today H. Brooks and Company has 225 families working for them. “Our responsibility to our employees is important,” says Brooks. “I have a son who is 33 and is a professional poker player. I told him that gambling is not compatible with the business, and so I won’t allow him to work for us. My daughter Nina is 30 and started at age 16 inspecting produce in the warehouse. Any family members who won’t work hard and watch over things you have to get rid of. We have a responsibility to those who work for us to manage our business carefully.”

Philip Brooks of H. Brooks and Company (C. Smith)

One challenge facing farmers today, Brooks adds, is that people have lost “confidence in the food supply, and so they start doing it themselves or going straight to the supplier. In New York City there are now thousands of chicken coops. People are concerned about additives, including genetically modified foods, and their impact on cancers, headaches, and allergies.”

The South African story is not completely dissimilar. While it’s one of the few countries in Africa to grow genetically modified crops, South African consumers are increasingly uneasy about GMOs. Demand for organic food is on the rise — the top retail grocery chains trumpet the fact that they sell “predator-friendly lamb; dolphin-friendly tuna; and badger-friendly honey.”

What is not a trend in South Africa, however, are farmers’ markets.

Essential oils producer Ntsiuoa Koba listens intently during a lecture in MN. Behind her, South Africa’s economic consul in Chicago Donnadeliah Maluleke (C. Smith)

Ntsiuoa Kobo of the Lesitsi Family Trust, who produces essential oils, leather goods and honey, was most interested in how farmers’ markets could cut out the middlemen who often negotiate low prices from farmers to reap large profits for themselves.

Jack Gerten, market manager of St. Paul’s Farmers Market, says organic foods and a lack of trust in big food manufacturers is leading to an explosion of farmer’s markets across America. “We have 185 growers that sell at St. Paul markets and at 22 locations in surrounding suburbs, with another 150 farmer’s markets across the state.”

Gerten’s advice to the South African delegation? “Never look and see what the person in front of you is selling, always look for a vegetable not being sold.” And “focus on organic, that is where the market will be for a long time.”

James Hannigan of J&J Distributing says, by distributing organic food to retailers, sales shot up, both for his company and the stores he serviced.

“One large group saw their business in organic go from zero to $20m in two years,” Hannigan says. “Organic is very difficult to manage because the product is volatile and you have to know what sells. We monitor what the top sellers are and we create a plan-a-gram for the customer that shows where to put the product on the shelf so that it sells. We are in stores seven days a week, and sometimes three or four times a day.”

Makgethwa Mphogo, CEO of Temothuo Consulting Agency, who has been a farmer for more than a decade, says, “I can’t get over how friendly Americans are. They show so much interest in us.” She was also hopeful that some of the contacts she made in Minnesota would result in new American business.