The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil. ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Bahá’i Writings)
Agriculture should be a force for good, providing solutions to global issues of hunger, inequity, energy consumption, pollution, climate change, loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources. The positive, multifaceted environmental, social and economic benefits of a truly sustainable agriculture can contribute solutions to most of the world’s major problems. ~ SOAAN
When I first heard that my brother-in-law, Wesley, and his wife, Kelly, were starting an organic farming business in Mauritius, I couldn’t believe it. Not because I didn’t think they were capable—these two are among the most capable, determined, and business savvy people I know—but because they both seemed like such unlikely farmers. They had spent several years living in the heart of tech-centric San Francisco city, working in fields entirely unrelated to agriculture. As it turns out, building an organic farm business was not their initial plan and the idea had come to them sort of, well, organically.
One late-summer evening in 2015, Wes, Kelly, Oli and I met up for dinner in Burlingame, California. It would be our last meal together before Wes and Kelly departed the United States and began their lengthy world-trip, which included visiting family in Mauritius, before settling down in Singapore (Kelly’s homeland). I remember that evening well because Oli and I revealed to Wes and Kelly that we had started trying for our first child, and I remember feeling sad that they were leaving the Bay Area as they were the only family we had nearby. As Providence would have it, their world-trip ended before it began as Wes came down with a mystery illness and they flew directly to Mauritius so that he could recuperate at his parents’ home before the move to Singapore. During Wes’s recovery, two things happened that put them on the path towards Farmcity: 1) they had a difficult time sourcing locally produced, affordable organic produce, which they wanted to buy for Wes to aid his recovery, and 2) they began hearing stories about, and in some cases witnessing first hand, the dangerous over-use of pesticides in Mauritius coinciding with rising cancer rates, the increasing cost of food, and an undernourished population. The foundation of Farmcity was established: to provide universal access to locally and sustainably grown organic produce in Mauritius.
With their initial plans upended, Wes and Kelly set to work on building Farmcity. Experienced entrepreneurs and strategists (Wes was the co-founder of a startup acquired by eBay, and Kelly had recently completed a Masters in Non-Profit Administration from the University of San Francisco), they anticipated challenges and a difficult start. But they were unprepared for the realities of doing business in Mauritius: a dysfunctional bureaucracy (it took eight months and much wrangling for Wes and Kelly to obtain a permit to start building their first greenhouse, and they waited two years to receive a government grant for small farmers); rampant political nepotism; an unreliable and downright deceitful construction workforce (their first contractor delayed construction, demanded more money, and then sued Wes and Kelly when they were, justifiably, laid off); and an inconsiderate (to say the least!) neighbor whose sugar cane burning threatened to engulf Farmcity and whose indiscriminate use of pesticides, several months after the fire incident, decimated Farmcity’s first real crop yield. Wes and Kelly had invested everything into the farm—they sold property and dug deep into their savings to finance the business, they lived frugally, and they devoted every waking minute to it. This was a labor of love, yet setback after setback beat down on them until they very nearly gave up.
At a recent FuckUp Night event here in Mauritius, Wes and Kelly shared the story of Farmcity’s difficult beginnings. They were frank about the strain it placed on their marriage and the toll it took on their emotional and physical health. During that challenging time, they sought solace in Singapore where they spent several weeks recharging and regrouping. And they went back to basics, the very foundations of Farmcity: the community of Mauritius needed what Farmcity was offering—sustainably grown organic produce that was universally available. Wes and Kelly felt they had a responsibility to soldier on. And they are survivors. They have what fellow entrepreneur and business leader Ashely Saddul refers to as the “entrepreneur’s resilience”, that insatiable drive to overcome obstacles and conquer. Today, Farmcity is proving to be a viable venture, albeit still quite nascent. The building blocks of the business are there—the farm’s signature TropicBird greenhouse, a regular (if small) stream of produce, a growing customer base, several key community partnerships, and the beginnings of an Agrication (Agriculture + Education) Program.
Farmcity strives to grow its organic produce in a sustainable manner, using sustainable sources of energy (wind and solar) and harnessing Mother Nature’s own disease and pest control mechanisms to cultivate crops and improve biodiversity. One example of this is the TropicBird. The TropicBird is a patent-pending greenhouse, designed by Wes and Kelly, which uses modern technology and some basic science to shelter and nurture the plants grown inside. Its impressive wing-like design, and name, is inspired by the tropicbird (or paille-en-queue) familiar to Mauritians. On a recent tour of the farm, co-founder Kelly explained to me that this unique design allows cool fresh air to move through the TropicBird, forcing the warmer air upwards and out, and providing passive ventilation (i.e. without the need for extractor fans). A central trough runs the length of the greenhouse, like a spine, catching and channeling rainwater away from crops and into storage tanks for future use. Gravity is then used to move water from the tanks, through pipes, to the plants on the floor of the greenhouse, and a valve system regulates how much water the plants receive. This gravity-powered irrigation system does not require any electrical power or manpower to operate.
Wes and Kelly practice principles of permaculture on the farm. Permaculture (shorthand for “permanent agriculture”) is a system of agricultural and social design principles that simulates or utilizes patterns and features found in natural ecosystems, including returning waste back into the system (for example through composting); capturing and conserving natural energy (solar and water); considering the relationships between and among plants and insects (including diversifying crops, practicing ‘companionate planting’, and building habitats to attract and protect pollinators); and fully utilizing and valuing borders and marginal spaces (see photo above). A large tract of land beyond the TropicBird has been designated for experimental planting; weeds and wild flowers are encouraged to grow among the crops as they provide ground cover (to prevent soil erosion) and attract pollinators; and a beehive has been established on the property to boost the local bee population.
Beyond that, Wes and Kelly want to engage the public in a conversation about food systems—where and how our food is grown, who produces it, who sells it, who consumes it, and at what cost—and encourage each of us to consider the role we play within that system. This is at the heart of Farmcity’s Agrication Program, which aims to raise up the next generation of agricultural entrepreneurs (from the tender age of 3 through adulthood—because it’s never too early or too late to start!) who are attune to the needs and vulnerabilities of the environment and of their local communities, and who apply modern technology and innovation to sustainable organic farming practices. Thus, Wes and Kelly have recognized that true change occurs at the level of culture, and if there is going to be a dramatic shift in the way Mauritius (and the rest of the world!) produces and consumes food, then institutions, communities, and the public all need to be engaged in, and take ownership of, the process of moving towards truly sustainable organic agriculture. This is what the Sustainable Organic Agriculture Action Network (SOAAN) calls ‘Organic 3.0’:
The overall goal of Organic 3.0 is to enable a widespread uptake of truly sustainable farming systems and markets based on organic principles and imbued with a culture of innovation, of progressive improvement towards best practice, of transparent integrity, of inclusive collaboration, of holistic systems, and of true value pricing.
Thinking about ‘true value pricing’, because Farmcity utilizes a natural source of energy (the sun), exploits gravity for irrigation, generates its own compost, and uses natural pest-control methods, it can keep the cost of inputs down. However, diversified organic crop production does require a greater investment in human resources compared to monocultural crop production that relies heavily on machinery. Wes and Kelly hope to offset this cost through the revenue generated by their Agrication Program (participants pay a small fee) in order to keep the price of their produce affordable and competitive in the local market. (Side note: I’m super excited to announce that I have officially joined the Farmcity team as Agrication Program Facilitator, and I can’t wait to start cultivating the next generation of modern organic farmers and growing in my own knowledge and skills along the way!).
Wes and Kelly have set themselves a lofty goal, but the response to Farmcity has been overwhelmingly positive and, indeed, it seems that a sea change in society is occurring. A growing number of people are starting to take interest in where and how their food is grown, and how this affects the well-being of the environment and the community.
Resources for further information and to get involved:
Farmcity Instagram: farmcity_official
Farmcity Facebook: @FarmcityNews