Meet PE’s seed saver and coffee maker Rushka Johnson: Green Route

By Rushka Johnson in Port Elizabeth

I am 43, and grew up all around South Africa, from Cape Town, to Mmabatho, Mafikeng, Clarens – where we lived mostly in the wild, barefoot and roaming the hills – Bethlehem with an old horse named Billy and living off fruit, King William’s town and then at 17, Port Elizabeth to study fine art. I majored in Sculpture, welded steel installations. It was a fantastic experience!

Eco-conscious living wasn’t really a word in those days, it was just how we lived. When you grow up in a family with a zillion kids and your parents grew up in families with a zillion kids, saving every drop of everything, growing food, finding farmers to supply buckets of milk and pulling your weight, was just the norm. My granny was in her own league though and for some reason we were just on the same wavelength. She loved herbs and natural remedies and walked around the neighbourhood picking up rubbish and making things with plastic bags. Picking up fruit from the ground and cutting out the good bits and making the most glorious fruit salads.

She lived with us and it was wonderful. We were NEVER allowed a whole apple or to pick fruit off a tree if there was fruit on the ground. I tend to think that people are just wired differently, with a natural tendency to care deeply for different things. Best is when you have wonderful influences and role models around you to inspire and put you in your place.

I met my husband at the end of my first year of university at the age of 18 and was married at 22. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to start a family at such a young age, the energy required is A LOT, especially the way I do things.

I’ve also been working with seeds, seed saving, growing organic food and creating awareness on chemical farming, for the last six years or so.

I have had the privilege of participating in a few wonderful permaculture workshops, learnt about the environment, the soil, sustainability through brilliant researchers and farmers alike. Herbal remedies are a great passion which started practically and consciously about 20 years ago but was a natural part of my life from early childhood.

And I have been lucky enough to be a dance fitness coach, for the past seven years as well. Teaching ballroom dance and art to kids is something that I have missed a lot, during lockdown.

HOME LIFE with Rushka

My husband and I and our three precious children (we can’t even really call “children” anymore because the oldest is 21 already!) We live on a smallholding just outside of Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

My parents stay on the property as well, in our granny flat. I have been privileged enough to be able to home educate our kids, thanks to my hardworking husband who has slaved away over the last 21 years, to make sure that we have everything that we need and to make it possible for me to be at home with them. It has been the most wonderful, exciting, sacred time that we could have possibly imagined.

We are especially lucky to have my parents close by who are a big part of their education. My dad (Warge), currently teaches French and has taught, Hebrew, philosophy and classical guitar over the years and mom (Sparge) teaches the history (amongst other life lessonsfrom her life experience and God-given wisdom)

We have pets – 2 dogs, 2 cats and a big fat, rhinoceros-looking pot bellied pig called Orson. Horses are on the cards for boychild, if he is willing to put in the study, work and time. One of the joys of homeschooling is having the time to learn and put into practise passions and interests.

The Story of Death by Coffee

We opened our roastery mid 2016 – from our smallholding We decided to start a business together as a family. It was something that we could do together , learn and spend time together. Best way to learn something is to just do it. We love coffee and especially wanted organically grown beans from wholesome happy farms. What better way than to start our own. We could source the quality that we wanted, find out about the farms and learn an entirely new skill at the same time.

Breeze (our oldest daughter), is the artist of our labels and we all taught ourselves the wonderful art of baristaing, serving, running a business, marketing and teamwork. We roasted from home and set up pop-up coffee shops at art exhibitions, music festivals and markets to get the word out. It was hard work but because we all know and respect each other, love working together and each have different strengths, it was great fun and we achieved more than we had hoped for. We opened the roastery and our cafe, to the public in mid 2019 in the very first home that we had bought, 18 years ago. Two of our kids were home birthed there and it was far too sentimental to sell, so we kept it and have been using it for various different things over the years. How perfect for a family roastery?

We started a little cafe and moved our beautiful big roaster from our garage to its new home. Boychild and my husband, Justin, went on a building mission and built all the shelves and the beautiful bar counter. We filled a corner with couches and precious books and absolutely LOVED meeting the locals and connecting with precious people. We had art slam events with poetry and music and art. Ruth, our 16-year-old daughter was the pastry chef and baked the most delicious pastries. (She is saving up to buy a 7-pedalled harp which is quite pricey so was all in). Boychild added a deck and gazebo and we even had a swing jive dance party.

A highlight was watching the pay it forward coffee shelf grow. Kind and generous customers would write a message on a coffee cup and buy a stranger a coffee. Giving them away and seeing the faces of the people receiving was a wonderful heartwarming experience. (We still have some cups waiting on the shelf for after lockdown)

What has been the effect of lockdown on your business?

We had to close our doors to the public because of lockdown. It was sad and we have missed the deep discussions and community and the faces of our regulars. We thought that our entire roastery would just have to be on hold and maybe even close but people continued, through lockdown, to buy our coffee. One of our regulars had a licence to deliver food and offered to deliver our coffee which was unexpected and so appreciated. We became the official roasters for the “Morning Shot” news analysis channel, hosted by Roman Cabanac, which is a great honour.

Since then we have been roasting up a storm and I have learnt the art of hardcore online websites and ecommerce – purely out of necessity to keep up with the orders. It was difficult but wonderful and interesting to figure out. (Still much more to figure out mind you)

We created a limited edition “lockdown” coffee for the first two months of hard lockdown and had some fun hiding coffee around the roastery garden, to gift the precious people in service, during that time. They were so sweet in playing along and took selfies when they found their coffee bags.

Our customers have also helped us to raise some funds for making hoody blankets and sandwiches for people in the Eastern Cape hospital crisis. The “Be the Change NMB movement” has done a wonderful job in connecting all the helping hands together for greater impact.

Last but not least. One of our friends made us the most beautiful, hand crafted, pure leather, steampunk masks and set up a treasure hunt for us at the roastery. It was so fun and the masks were so beautiful that we asked her to custom make some as 2020 lockdown, apocalypse, collectibles. Something cool to remember this “first time in history” happening.

So now we are selling them as well, along with our coffee, on our online store. We just love homemade, quality, locally made things and so happy that she said yes.

We are blown away by the kindness and generosity of people during these last few months. Caring, donating, helping and supporting small businesses and each other. We have tried our best to do the same and will continue to. past lockdown.

Lockdown Life: Five Favourites

1. Being peaceful and at home with family (Yes, I admit it, we were rushing around like lunatics before Lockdown). We only realised it when we were FORCED to stay at home. It took us about a month just to get the adrenaline levels down.

2. When faced with an unknown crisis, one is forced to reflect and take note of what is truly important. This is a good thing. In my case – the most important thing – reading the bible from top to bottom – things are put into perspective. God is the most important thing and knowing him means everything. All else follows from that.

3. We got our hands in the soil again. Planting, weeding, building beds, making a dam/pond (no it’s not finished yet, and yes we had a blast and a few frustrated moments during undoing and redoing). Some good homegrown sunshine and moving heavy rocks back and forth is never a bad thing. Growing organic food and seed saving, is my passion, I was growing and supplying organic vegetables, before opening the cafe. I have missed it and am so happy to be in the soil again.

4. Our oldest daughter, Breeze is a filmmaker and she and I are in the process of releasing a full length documentary on home education in South Africa. She is in the process of editing the footage – it takes VERY very long (literally about a year for a full length film) – being trapped at home has definitely helped. Not too many distractions.

5. More community work. With all of life’s distractions, our contribution to our local communities had dwindled. Even though we have made it a point to always be helping and giving of ourselves and what we have to others, in some way. The business of our schedule had taken over.

Once again. What is important – helping the poor, giving time, sharing what we have. This crisis has really hurt so many people. Humans are sacred and caring for those around us is very very important.

My favourite green spaces? Our backyard is my favourite spot, Schoenies is beautiful and fresh and my dad’s garden (We did a garden makeover for him, it was fun and difficult and well worth it) – he loves growing food too and lives in a granny flat on our property with my mom. He has so many fruit trees in such a tiny space. It’s quite amazing.

What gets me through a lockdown day food-wise? Coffee

The women in our home all have turns to make supper. I love it. After being the only one making supper for our family for the last 21 years. Boychild usually whips up amazing weekend breakfasts. And on Saturdays and Sundays we fire up the beast and whip up cuppaccinos and flat whites for the fam. Ruth started a herb garden out the kitchen door (raised up high, so that Orson, the rhinoceros pig, can’t polish it all off)

What do I appreciate most about lockdown? Time, focus on family, peace, awareness and care for others. Learning how to navigate through the chaotic moments with grace and kindness and hope.

What makes me happy? I love going to church and talking to, and about God. It’s the most peaceful, worthwhile, interesting and exciting thing for me. Music – our home is filled with musicians. it’s wonderful. Nature, coffee, plants, seeds, coffee, meeting people, children, coffee, dancing around like a lunatic, family, did I mention coffee?

How do I see the world post-lockdown (if lockdown ever lifts)?

I think that people have moved even deeper into doing things online. I hope that it doesn’t stay that way. Being with one another, hugs, closeness, community is so important. There are many people who are in a very bad place because of lockdown. Shattered homes, starving, depression, anger and hopelessness. But people are resilient and trials can be a blessing, long term. Just because we can’t see the bigger picture doesn’t mean that good things can’t come from a bad situation. All I can be is, gentle and caring to those around me. Try my best to encourage and help where I can. Work hard to help my husband and family and give those who ask, a reason for the hope that is within me.

I don’t know what it will be like but I do know how I want to be and what I want to do and I hope that our children feel the same. GRZA

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Published by Melanie Farrell

Founder of Green Route ZA - the path to eco-conscious living. I live in Cape Town, South Africa.

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