Phumi Ramalepe for News24.
The founder and CEO of Vital Veggie, Michael Brooks, left his job at Emirates Airlines to pursue his passion for farming. Now he’s gone into partnership with Cheeba Africa to set up a hemp and cannabis training facility in Midrand as the hydroponic fresh produce business embarks on a new journey.
This report first appeared in News 24 on May 2023
Michael Brooks quit his job as an operational airline supervisor for Emirates Airlines to pursue his passion in farming.
Today, as a first-generation farmer, he owns 10 ha of farmland and his business supplies vegetables to Spar and fish for sushi to Checkers and Woolworths. And now he’s discovered a new farming passion – the cultivation of cannabis which has resulted in his partnership with Cheeba Africa and Training Force to open a cannabis and hemp academy in Midrand, Gauteng.
The 33-year-old cannabis and vegetable grower has always been motivated by the idea of farming, and with little to no experience or funding, he quit his job and put all his money into his dream - and it has paid off.
"The reason I left was to start my own venture. I thought it was time to take a leap of faith. I spent all my money taking the risk and a leap of faith. Thirteen years later, I've never looked back," he told News24.
During his early days in the farming industry, Brooks secured his first farm in De Aar in the Northern Cape. The farm constituted 9.2 hectares of land, but he used some 4.2 hectares of it for farming.
It also had 4 500 square metres of greenhouse space, where Brooks started farming several vegetables, including pumpkin, butternut, onions, watermelons, and more.
Late last year, Brooks moved to Johannesburg for some training in the field of cannabis.
Little did he know that he would end up securing a deal to take over another farmstead in Midrand.
The farm has more than three hectares of land in total. With so much land to his name, Brooks finally learned the ins and outs of hydroponics a year later. He used this farming method to grow green, red, and yellow peppers, jalapenos, chillies, tomatoes, and other vegetables that can grow hydroponically.
Falling in love with aquaponics
The next step was aquaponics, a food production system in which fish and plants cooperate to feed one another - and he would soon fall in love with it.
Brooks officially started the course last July, and now most of his farm in Midrand is run on aquaponics.
"It took me six years to do an aquaponics course, to see what it is all about, to make the change. After I completed the course, I kept asking myself why I was scared to make the move the entire time.
"This is everything I know. It's not outside the barriers of planting and cultivation. You're just combining your fish and plant into one system basically," Brooks told News24.
According to him, aquaponics was one of the cheaper methods of farming.
He conceded the initial cost for setting up was expensive but once in place, the cultivation part was much more affordable.
This because farmers spend less money on nutrients. What the fish supplement into the water is what the plants need.
"Instead of buying 15kg of nutrients, you buy 10kg of nutrients and that lasts for a couple of months. It's completely different with hydroponics," Brooks said.
More than anything, he added, "one gets attached to the fish because you're working with something that's living".
"You hatch the fish out; you grow them from the egg to full adult size. You actually get attached to them. They grow on you.
"You know exactly what's wrong in the system, when the fish are too hungry, when they are sick or when there's something wrong in the water."
Partnering with retailers, giants in cannabis industry
In his aquaponics system, Brooks uses different types of fish, including rainbow trout and tilapia, one of which he supplies to the sushi market, particularly Woolworths and Checkers.
He also supplies a plethora of vegetables to retailers such as Spar.
Given his strong background in the farming and cultivation of cannabis, Brooks approached Cheeba Cannabis Africa Cannabis Academy, a cannabis educator in South Africa, in hopes of becoming a trainee and honing his skills as a grower.
Little did he know they would see his potential and ask him to become one of the hemp and was running a thriving cannabis farm.
Brooks will now train Cheeba's cannabis students following its recent launch of the Cheeba Cannabis and Hemp Training Centre in Midrand.
Having self-funded his business since he started in 2016, Brooks wants aspiring farmers to know they need to invest in themselves before expecting 'handouts' because sometimes they might not even come.
He also urges youngsters to consider growing in the agricultural sector.
"When I look at people younger than me, I don't see the next generation of farmers, and that's a problem. My drive is to take people out of the communities and develop them in the agricultural sector," said Brooks.
"To show them that you don't need to get dirty every day. You don't need to work in an open field with manure and compost to actually be in the agricultural sector. We want to get youngsters in the industry."
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