Uncle Johns Natural Yellow Maize Porridge

Uncle Johns Porridge
The late John and Glenda Vinnicombe farmed the way they had been taught by their parents on a farm outside Underberg on the foothills of the Southern Drakensburg Mountain range. Uncle John, as he was known to our generation, grew a natural yellow maize called the Bushman Mealie.
This mealie was planted on the farm in the early 1900’s and was only grown for the farm’s consumption. Through 4 generations kids grew up eating this healthy natural yellow porridge for breakfast and after John and Glenda’s passing a few years ago the family have decided that this tradition should be continued and offered to all South African families.
The Story about a Family Tradition..by Derek King.

Please humor my short story and take a few minutes to read what I believe is quite a unique tale about a very special maize product – The Bushman Mealie. It’s a story about a desire to bring a natural organic yellow maize meal into the families of the healthy and environmentally conscious South African consumer. It’s about putting a healthy, tasty and necessary meal into our kids tummies before they start their days adventures. The story goes..

Fate would play its role when I met my wife to be some 15 years ago in London. What was quite uncanny is that both of us came from a farming background in South Africa while growing up as kids. My Dad (Don King) worked his farming magic in the Mpumalanga area and Kerry (my wife) spent all her holidays growing up on a family farm in the Underberg (KZN) area. The farm in the Underberg was owned by her Aunt and Uncle (Glenda and John Vinnicombe) and before their passing a few years ago I was privileged to spend family holidays on the West Ilsley farm. Over the last 10 years I recall Kerry and I loading the kids into the car to escape the bustle of Joburg and as we left the smog for the beautiful rolling hills of the Midlands, the kids would always say “I cannot wait to have some more of Uncle John’s porridge”. This is where the story and love of the coarsely ground Bushman Mealie started. John or Johnny as he was affectionately known by the Underberg district lived all his life on the West Ilsley farm and in true family tradition continued to farm the land the same way his father had taught him over the years. His traditional and some would say old fashioned way of farming is ironically a move many farmers are trying to make in the interests of sustainable agriculture. The Bushman Mealie has been farmed “organically” on the West Ilsley farm for the past 100 years. Being an single variety open pollinated yellow maize, the mealie is low yielding and therefore was only grown for the farms consumption. So in all this time the same mealie was grown for the benefit of family, staff, livestock and garden birds. Seed from the previous year was held back and replanted without the use of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.

This is where my Dad (Don King) comes into the story. An Agronomist by qualification but a true farmer and conservationist by heart, my Dad who is in his 70’s has also just completed some more studies on Sustainable Farming. This newly found passion has seen the birth of South Africa’s biggest advocate in trying to entice farmers to adopt the Biological approach to their farming methods. I often wonder if the introduction to John on West Ilsley sparked an approach to farming he always knew was the only way for South African farmers. Seeing the Bushman Mealie being grown on West Ilsley took my Dad back 60 years to when he last saw this mealie being grown by his father on a farm outside Standerton (Mpumalanga). I would often take my Dad with us on our family visits to West Ilsley and he and John would disappear into the West Ilsley lands for hours debating and discussing the various farming methods available in modern agriculture. The typical routine on holiday at West Ilsley was simple – the day would not start unless we had all had a huge bowl of “Uncle John’s porridge”. This natural yellow maize meal with low GI would certainly allow the kids to run wild on the farm until their next healthy meal.

The passing of both John and Glenda within a year of each other left a complicated scenario in which the Estates were wound up. Unfortunately the family farm had to be sold and for the first time in probably 100 years the Bushman Mealie was not planted at West Ilsley. The family tradition and the maize which had provided a healthy meal every day to generations was at risk of being lost and it was truly a sad realization. The family was devastated and my Dad then kick started a plan to continue with the tradition. He spoke to a very good friend and successful farmer, Guybon Osler, about setting aside some land on his “Lone Tree” farm (outside Bethlehem in the Freestate) to grow the Bushman Mealie using the Biological farming methods. Guybon was only too happy to help out so we could continue in the family tradition, but my Dad wanted to prove that under the right conditions this open pollinated maize could be grown organically as a viable commercial product. We managed to salvage the last remaining few kg’s of the seed off West Ilsley and in November 2010, just over a hectare was planted in an old bean field on Lone Tree farm between Bethlehem and Fouriesberg. We had soil samples taken to ensure there was enough nutrients for the maize to survive. After all, this was the last remaining seed from the West Ilsley farm and we could not fail. The hectare piece of rich fertile land required we add 250kg of Organic Fertilizer which was about 1/3 of what we were expecting to add. This again proved that crop rotation was very important as the bean (legumes) had left almost an ideal balance to the soil for the maize seed. The rains came and with water and big blue skies the crop flourished in its new home in the Freestate. 

As is not always the case with farming, this season the Gods were on our side and we had a bumper crop, harvesting 5 tons on the hectare. This was more than we anticipated and it was clear to my Dad that this natural maize a descendant of the highland grass species really thrived in its new home on the Highveld. Lone Tree farm has an amazing history and under Guybon’s tenure it continues to produce some of the finest apples and crops this country and the export world will ever taste. The farm has an old mill house which was imported and built by a professional miller from Germany many decades ago. We have milled the Bushman Mealie with both the germ and the husk to produce a course yellow meal for porridge. This sounds all well and good but unless we can find a healthy and environmentally conscious consumer, producing this maize for friends and family is going to be too expensive. The maize seed would also be ideal for subsistence farmers as it is an open pollinating plant. Seed from the previous crop can be planted year after year without requiring fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides for a sustainable food source.

This is how a few dedicated and passionate people saved what hopefully will continue on as the 100 year old family tradition. The families who came together in this story like to believe that Uncle John can look down from heaven and be proud and humbled that his legacy continues in sharing this very healthy and delicious product with many more families in South Africa.
The Bushman Mealie is a single variety yellow maize. Uncle John’s natural maize has been in the family for over 100 years and is grown without the use of herbicides and pesticides.
Soil samples are analysed based on a crop rotational basis and if required Organically Certified fertiliser is used to supplement the mineral requirements for a balanced soil.
The non-genetically modified open pollinated maize has developed an amazing natural resistance to disease and insects and great care is taken to ensure the plant is not accidentally cross pollinated with other maize varieties. The seed is hand-picked and sorted to ensure that only the golden orange/yellow kernel is planted for the following season.
The maize is milled on the farm down to a coarse grain, ensuring that all the natural goodness contained in the germ and the husks are not removed from Uncle John’s maize meal.

Uncle John’s yellow maize meal is packaged in 1kg brown paper bags and we are striving to reduce the carbon footprint in the growing, milling, packaging and transport of the product. One cup of Uncle John’s porridge will feed a family of four to ensure a healthy balanced start to the day.
The maize started is life on a farm in the cold KZN Underberg region at the foothills of the Southern Drakensburg and more recently we have moved it to the cold and fertile region on the foothills of the Muluti Mountains outside Fouriesburg in the Free State.

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