In a field at Ocean View Organic Farm, Kos Gangster Sophia Grodes tells the story of how she came to be one of the original farmers at the co-op.
“I’m going for lunch at Hoenderhok Cafe in Ocean View with the Kos Gangsters,” I told my husband as I set off on my Big Day Out.
Working from his “office” in the dining room, he looked at me dubiously, no doubt thinking “there she goes again” before piling back into work. It’s true; I enjoy seeking out unusual cafes in Cape Town, preferably somewhere wild and remote with lots of open space. Not too many people.
Perhaps Benson Nathan Arendse picked this up from my social media posts, filled with tea-time at The crooked little scone shack made of old windows near Cape Point and Happiness and Java in the woods at the Secret Forest Café in Tokai.
“I want to tell you about the Ocean View Organic Farmers,” wrote Benson in an email in early lockdown six months ago. “They have an organic farm, call themselves the Kos Gangsters and they’re donating crops and bread to local soup kitchens during lockdown.”
I’ve never actually met Benson but we know each other via social media. We both enjoy good coffee and growing things at home. He has chickens; I’d like to get chickens.
Benson’s message is the reason I’m standing in a field in Ocean View, listening to Sophia Grodes, one of the original Kos Gangsters and chair of the co-operative, tell us about her passion for organic farming.
Sophia was working at a Montessori school when she heard that Justin Bonello’s Neighbourhood Farm organisation (based in Fish Hoek) was looking for 20 interns from Ocean View to do a year-long intensive urban farming training programme.
She dropped everything and applied for an internship, making it through to the final 20, “although I was a lot older than most of the other applicants”.
“At the end of the year Justin asked us if we wanted to carry on and farm on our own at Ocean View Secondary School,” she says.
Of the 20 interns who started the course, 10 completed the training and in February 2020 when the farm was handed over, six interns took up the challenge of becoming independent urban farmers. Under the auspices of Neighbourhood Farm, in 2019 these emerging farmers built the farm from scratch – digging beds, putting up infrastructure, making compost and planting seedlings.
Sophia was one of the original six who chose to become a “Kos Gangster” and she is tough but in a good way. Her storytelling skills are superb. Her tale about growing basil to sell has us in stitches.
“Ja, we tried basil in the beginning and quickly learnt that basil was not for us,” she says emphatically. “It’s so delicate, we had to harvest early in the morning, chill and deliver within four hours. And you know us coloureds, we have a babelas on a Monday morning. It was not good. I’m a brassica grower, I am. Give me broccoli, cabbage, all the greens and I’ll grow fine crops. Not basil.”
Sophia’s sense of humour hides the real reason she and the other women who make up the Kos Gangsters decided to throw themselves into setting up the farm and helping the community.
“Every single house in Ocean View has lost at least one person to crime or drugs. There’s nothing for people here. Before we started the farm people were scared of nature, of animals in the wild. They would try to kill spiders or frogs and we have shown them that you can live harmoniously with nature.
“You see this porcupine on our shirts?” says Sophia, pointing at the logo on her T-shirt. “When we started the farm there was a porcupine who used to come in at night and eat our beetroot. He looked purple, the ends of his quills glowed in the dark. We didn’t harm him, we just blocked up the hole in the fence and made the porcupine our logo.
“We are passionate about our community and the dream for the farm has always been to provide affordable and nutritious organic vegetables for Ocean View and neighbouring suburbs,” says Sophia before going back to her brassica.
Weekly veggie boxes can be ordered from the farm and an abandoned chicken coop has been refurbished and is now open for lunch on Fridays and Saturdays, from October 2020.
The chicken coop bears little resemblance to a pen full of hens with its painted floor, chicken-wire windows (nice touch, plus lots of fresh air for physical distancing) and tables spaced far apart.
I meet Pamela McOnie from Cape Fusion Tours and her photographer colleague Shelley Mileham for lunch at Hoenderhok Cafe. Pam’s thinking of putting together a tour of the Deep South, showing foodies secret spots in the peninsula, and when I told her about the farm she was keen to join me. After our short tour with Sophia, Hoenderhok Cafe is one of those places likely to be on Pam’s peninsula itinerary.
We order one of each item to share off the short and sweet menu that includes pizza, farm sandwiches, sweet treats and drinks. “If it’s on our tour we need to have a bite of everything,” explains Pam.
Brightly-hued freshly-squeezed juices refresh and revive before we feast on our toasted sandwiches, made with bread baked in a wood-burning oven on the farm, and pizzas topped with feta and farm spinach.
Pam insists that we share some scones, also made in the wood-burning oven. They’re sweet and filling, served with butter, jam and cream and sitting in the hok overlooking the veggie garden I’m very glad that Benson told me about the farmers.
Merna Booysen, the co-operative’s treasurer, notes that “there was nothing but bare ground when we started and today we are growing and distributing about 150 boxes of mixed vegetables a month”.
The Covid-19 lockdown provided the impetus to scale up their baking operations to provide about 360 loaves a week, which the farmers are donating to the vulnerable in the community – with a focus on children and the elderly. “We all grew up in this community,” says Nicoleen Jacobs, the co-operative’s secretary, “and will do what we can to keep people fed during the lockdown.”
Could the Kos Gangsters of Ocean View show us the way to build back better? I think so.
“When I was a little girl I carried an apple seed around in a matchbox and I would show it to people and tell them that I would grow an apple tree and they could have some of my apples,” says Sophia. “And look, now I’m growing food, I’m a kos gangster.” DM/TGIFood
Hoenderhok Cafe, Ocean View Secondary School, Hydra Avenue, Ocean View. Best to book in advance because it only seats about 20. Open on Friday and Saturday lunch only, from 11am till 2.30pm. To book WhatsApp Stef 076 852 2163. Payment cash or EFT.
For more information about the farm please contact Sophia Grodes on 074 334 5547 Ocean View Organic Farmers