Sunflowers symbolize adoration, loyalty and longevity. Much of the meaning of sunflowers stems from its namesake, the sun itself.
My teenage dream was to work on the lavender fields in France after matric to mark my newfound independence. The reality was somewhat different, with my rite of passage into adulthood a summer holiday job selling eau de cologne and lavender-perfumed soaps at a department store before heading off to university. The visions of lavender fields and the unfulfilled promise to my younger self faded over time.
Little did I know serendipity would work its magic when I accepted an invitation from Flora to visit sunflower farms in Limpopo to see Unilever’s sustainable farming programme in action.
Serendipity is a word that marks another milestone in my life, when I received the word as a gift for my 40th birthday from a close friend. It became a talisman of sorts, a guide to unexpected pleasant discoveries and meaningful coincidences.
My serendipitous sunflower sojourn took me to a region of the country I’ve never seen or hear of before – the Springbok Flats, an arid, flat plain named for the vast herds of Springbok which once roamed the region. Since implementing the Unilever programme forty farmers transformed these plains into a sunflower mecca.
It’s here that farmers committed to sustainable sunflower farming grow enough sunflower seeds for 30 million tubs of Flora margarine annually. Its here – in the country’s margarine basket that a community of farmers are fast gaining a reputation for farm to fork practices of international standard.
The two-day visit busted the stereotype of rugged farmers with conservative hairstyles, ‘boere-tans’ and boepies. The farming couple from Zandfontein, my first stop, was quite the opposite. Third generation farmer Edward Leversage and his charming wife Alda (herself a farm girl originally from Vryburg) are young, dynamic, modern, on top of the latest scientific farming methods, respectful of old wisdom, committed to the future and sharing their experiences with other farmers. No wonder Edward won the Young Farmer’s Award for his contribution to the community.
We walk around the farm yard, their young son playing under Alda’s watchful eye. She is expecting another baby, but luckily with her mom now living in Naboomspruit, she will have extra hands with the farm work. Playful dogs, a beautifully maintained garden and gabled homestead make me consider trading city life for the country air.
Farming is not for the meek though, with safety and security a prime concern. He points to special fuel tanks built to strict specifications, no danger of spillage and contamination.
“We have to provide food security and produce food for the next generation. This way of farming increases yield, healthy soil and crops and importantly – a much safer environment for the farm workers, my young family and visitors to our farm.”
What touched me is their deep concern for the birds, bees and bullfrogs, literally. He told me how excited he is about the Unilever programme’s impact on biodiversity in the region as a whole.
They don’t use any fertilisers at all and keep pesticides to a minimum, making it very rewarding to see nature’s own checks and balances at work. Owls have returned to the area, keeping rodents away naturally. Edwin also has a bullfrog reserve on the farm, an area left unplanted to protect the indigenous species.
As we drove along the dirt roads from field to field, the thousands of bee hives stand as symbols of sustainability at work. The farmers don’t farm with the honey themselves, rather welcoming beekeepers to place their hives in the fields. Sustainability and cooperation in action.
I experienced new things way beyond what I expected:
I saw the Springbok Flats, visited the small town Roedtan and admired the Strydpoort mountains from afar;
I learnt how Flora margarine is made (natural sunflower oil is emulsified into margarine). Do try out the Flora Gold made with buttermilk and sustainably grown sunflower seeds;
I saw age-old traditions and modern farming practices working together. It was an eye-opener how the no-tilling practices from the past ensure a healthier soil and maximum water filtration;
I met Amanda van der Bank, an agricultural entrepreneur who owns a masculine fleet of heavy duty farming equipment. She reminded me a woman can stand in elegant high heels in the middle of a field – and not be dwarfed one bit by huge trucks;
I learnt that not even a devastating drought dampens the spirit of committed sunflower farmers: ‘A dry spell is always followed by a wet spell’. Edwin’s words have since become a soothing mantra I take forward in my own life.
I was reminded I can’t always have my cake and eat it! This I learnt when I begged Annelie Sherman of the home industry shop in Naboomspruit in vain for her chocolate cake recipe. She shared a secret though – the sunflower oil in the batter adds extra moistness.
The most serendipitous of all was standing in the sunflower field between thousands of Little Miss Sunshines, heads slightly bowed to the midday sun. After their harvest the beauty may be gone, but their stalks will remain in the clay soil, soaking up the rain when it comes, nourishing the earth. The owls will swoop in. The cycle will continue.
At that moment I finally grew up. The teenage yearning for France and its lavender fields seeped into the rich clay soil of the Springbok Flats. I never really liked lavender anyway.
SEED AND BRAN MUFFIN
- 90 g Flora Regular
- 70 g brown sugar
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 130 g self-raising flour
- 2.5ml salt
- 5 ml baking powder
- 250 g mixed seeds like sunflower, linseed, sesame seed and pumpkin seeds
- 180 ml dates, chopped
- 140 g banana, mashed
- 120 g oat bran (I used oats)
- 125ml buttermilk
Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease a 12-hole muffin pan with Flora.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream the Flora and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg until combined.
Sift the flour and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Fold into the creamed mixture with the seed mix, (reserve a few for the top), dates, banana, bran and buttermilk until combined. Spoon mixture into the muffin pan until 2/3 full. Sprinkle with the reserved seeds.
Bake for 20-25 mins, until cooked when tested with a skewer. Cool in pan for 5 mins. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
More about the the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture code:
- Every stage in the value chain – preparation of the soil, planting, harvesting, distribution and storing to the milling processes – adheres to the code’s specifications. Nothing is wasted, even after the oil has been extracted , the residue, sunflower meal, is used for animal feed.
- Farmers subscribing to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture code must adhere to stringent, audited specifications aimed at protecting and enhancing soil and sustainable water management, reducing the carbon footprint, protecting biodiversity, good labour practices and improving the life of farm workers. The verification company Control Unit oversees progress and adherence to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code.
I thank Unilever, Flora’s marketing team, CEOCO and Marilyn Garreau for my sunflower adventure. Thanks to Hush Naidoo (Jade Photography) for his patience with my special requests.