“Everything comes from the soil. The nation is dependent on it.”

‘If you are digging and planting in the soil you are not only feeding your children, but the nation. This’ – Veronica Mathebula cracks off more cabbage leaves – ‘it is in my blood. At the end of the day, this is what satisfies me.’

It’s been 14 years since Veronica, or Vera as she introduces herself, decided to give up teaching agricultural science to matriculants in order to dig her own fingers in the soil. Exuding a calm rock-like strength, the 55-year old is a powerhouse, passionate about farming, despite the logistical difficulties of doing it on her own.

Other than the low clanging of cowbells in the distance, and the occasional frog chorus, nothing but birdsong dissolves the silence. Like Denzhe Mukula, the 12ha farm is verdant, a variety of cash crops planted in furrows that run between rows of mature mango trees Vera planted in 1999. We are xkm from the neat little town of Giyani yet it feels a million miles from any kind of urban development. In part this has been Mavis’ greatest challenge.

‘Theft has been an ongoing problem. In [20xx] I was nominated as Women Farmer of the Year. I won the regionals; was approaching provincial level when I arrived one morning to find all my vegetables ripped out. In another incident my electricity transformer was stolen; my borehole has been sabotaged. But I just get up and start again. I believe that God wants me to move on, and I do.’

In 2011 Vera approached the Pick n Pay Foundation for assistance, and met with Ndivuyo. The Foundation’s R105 000 came in the nick of time. ‘I was able to purchase fertilizer, seedlings, fencing, labour – I have two women working for me. A farmer does not have the luxury of a holiday.

The day I stay home is the day things go wrong, so I am here every day, even Sundays, after church. But I need the extra hands.’ The Foundation also introduced Vera to the buyer at Sibasa’s Pick n Pay Family Store, thereby increasing her reach into a bigger market. Equally important, Vera says, was the Pick n Pay Foundation’s insistence on a business plan.

‘It was the best thing they could have done. It made me think about what it is that I want to achieve. Every time I make a decision I now first refer back to this plan. I look carefully at what I want to plant. This is vital – you must know what will sell, and where to sell it.’ Vera beckons us over to her newly turned furrows.

‘These are my new gem tomatoes.’ Vera bends over, brushes the leaves tenderly. ‘You see, every plant is like a newborn. It needs care, protection…’ She stands, fixes us with a stern look, her feet firmly planted above her new crop. ‘Everything comes from the soil. The nation is dependent on it. What we plant; what we eat – it’s important. I am a diabetic. I read that gem tomatoes are good for diabetics, and good for arthritis sufferers. The gem tomato also lasts longer.’ Her eyes start to twinkle. ‘I am thinking, this is the crop that will make me.’

Small box: Tit for tat – locust control
When we spot a colourful locust feasting on her cabbage, Vera shares an interesting pest control recipe with us ‘We pick them off the plants, put them in a pot, cover them with water and boil. Then we remove the carcasses and dilute the left over ‘gravy’ with water. We spray this mixture on the plants, and they choose to stay away!’

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