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Country Strong

Country Strong

Whether you’re first or fourth generation, few would argue that farming presents tougher challenges on all fronts than ever before. With agricultural growth down a whopping 17% for the second quarter of 2015, what’s plan b for farmers?

For many who dream of a life other than the one they’re living, a country farm beckons. But like all dreams, it’s more fantasy than fact. Farmers today are juggling tipping-point issues, including security concerns, South Africa’s worst water shortages in 23 years, high fuel and electricity prices, and the ailing rand.

But farmers countrywide, and particularly those on small to medium-sized farms, seem to be facing the challenges in creative and innovative ways. They’ve diversified to provide, among other benefits, an alternative income stream. With land and staff at their disposal, and terrain for eco and action experiences, agritourism makes good financial sense.

Jake and Claire Crowther live with their three young daughters – the sixth generation on this property – at Oakhurst near Wilderness in the Western Cape. ‘Our original farm was 640 hectares, and we’ve bought or hired surrounding farms for our 1 200-strong dairy herd of largely Jerseys. It’s pasture based: no feed-lotting, no processing, just healthy raw milk,’ says Jake.

 

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For those looking for a country wedding, nothing beats a vintage chapel

 

The opportunity to branch into agritourism came when their farm staff were given new state housing nearby, leaving five ideally situated, well-built empty cottages. ‘It was a good potential business venture which could run independently of the dairy business,’ says Jake. ‘It’s also stimulating and a break from the monotony of the dairy.’

They started by renovating then renting out the original 1830s forge, and today they have an additional five cottages, with plans to convert the old farm-school building into a reception venue. ‘The guests really enjoy the isolation, quietness, proximity to Wilderness, nature, dairy tours, farm milk and eggs, tracks, dams, fishing and canoes – it’s very satisfying knowing that people leave having had a good time,’ Jake says. ‘It’s a great venture which keys in well with the dairy side, and completely outweighs the reduction in our privacy.’

And it doesn’t end there. Jake is a mountain biker, and recognising this as a massively growing market, he’s capitalising on it, plus trail running and walking. ‘I’ve built nearly 10 kilometres of single track, almost entirely within the forest canopy. It’s very slow and costly to build, but it’s my passion. The biggest spinoff is that it’s the best, and virtually the only way to really know your isolated, hard-to-get-to forests. It’s also the perfect way to get involved in alien-vegetation control.’

 

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John Jnr, son of the Hanekoms of Suikerbossie farm, has his own corner of the property to raise goats

 

For the Crowthers, a less-obvious benefit has also emerged. ‘It’s a way of keeping a different eye on the farming business – you have to maintain high standards and keep improving, as there’s a constant trickle of outsiders on the farm,’ Jake observes. ‘With big brother watching, you look at your whole operation through new eyes.’

For Karin and John Hanekom at Suikerbossie farm in the Koue Bokkeveld, Western Cape, their alternative venture was sparked largely by wanting to share their magnificent surroundings. When they bought the farm, it was virgin land. Karin, an architect by trade, says, ‘It was so beautiful – like a big, beautiful rich cake, one we could never eat all by ourselves.’ So they set up a non-paying campsite for friends to enjoy… and those friends brought friends who insisted on paying.

Initially, Karin continued architecture while John established the farm (today, they’re farming 40 hectares of citrus and deciduous fruit, onions and rooibos tea). Eight years ago, Karin swapped architecture for agritourism, and now runs this large, successful business full-time.

John, a nuclear physicist, says, ‘Incorporating tourism with farming means city people can experience the farm life. They pick fruit from a tree, something we take for granted. They go on 4X4 drives and guided field-trips, pet the boer-goats, hike, mountain bike, star-gaze, kayak, and pull up onions out of the field – some don’t know onions grow underground, not on a tree!’

 

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It’s this setting that guests can expect when they stay at Weltevrede Fig Farm and Guesthouse

 

Diversifying in this way is often motivated by another generation on the farm; this can be adult children who return to farm life after a stint in the city or years spent studying, and either need to add another income stream to sustain themselves, or choose to start their own unrelated business. The Hanekoms’ eldest son, John Jnr, has a blacksmith’s forge and farms goats on Suikerbossie.

Pieter and Suzelle Koorts farm figs on Weltevrede Fig and Guest Farm, a 1 600-hectare property outside Prince Albert in the Karoo. Technology has brought change to the farm, and about a dozen years ago, they began supplying Woolworths because the brand’s infrastructure makes it possible to get fresh figs to market quickly.

Six generations have lived here, and next year, when the Koorts retire, daughter Liezl de Klerk and husband Jaco will take over the entire operation. Currently, the Koorts handle the fresh and dried figs, and Liezl and Jaco run a preserving plant. ‘We needed an income separate from the existing business, and there was potential to expand without taking anything away from that,’ Liezl explains.

 

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The distinctive seasons experienced in Hilton in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, mean the scenery is always spectacular

 

They also run the guesthouses. ‘There was a rundown house on the farm which my mom had fixed up and begun renting out. Then a Capetonian family bought neighbouring properties and built holiday homes. They saw the opportunity to join forces, so we rent out their properties as part of our guesthouse operation. It’s been working very well for the past 15 years.’

There’s another side to farming prompting farmers to diversify. In a nutshell, John Hanekom says, ‘A big negative of farming is that we’re price takers, not price makers. Consumers think they’re paying us what is rightfully ours. What they don’t realise is there’s a third party involved, and with their cut, when buying at a supermarket, you sometimes pay two or three times the price per kilogram that the farmer gets for the product. As a farmer, this is a very frustrating truth, as we carry all the costs and risks to produce the product, then it feels like someone else gets the reward for it.’

Steve Roberts wasn’t born into farming. He bought a dairy farm in Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal, and transitioned from a weekender into a full-time farmer. He’s under no illusions as to how tough farming is, and says with a wry smile, ‘How do you make a small fortune farming? You start with a big one.’

 

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A farm holiday at Oakhurst Farm near Wilderness provides every member of the family with a string of healthy outdoor activities

 

Urban farming – Best of both worlds?

  • At Val de Vie in the Franschhoek-Paarl valley in the Western Cape, it’s all about gentleman farming, with each of the 13 Gentleman’s Estates enjoying river frontage on the Berg River and groundwater rights for irrigation. Here, small-scale farming is highly unlikely to be the sole income – land sizes range from 1,2 to 3,53 hectares.Security is high, sporting and spatial amenities extensive, and vast green spaces include polo grounds and vineyards. ‘These new Gentleman’s Estates will have huge appeal for families who want to enjoy all the benefits of a healthy, farm-type lifestyle, even to potentially live off the land, encompassing a choice of one’s own vineyards, olive groves, organic vegetables and the like, or to keep horses and certain breeds of livestock,’ says Dr Andrew Golding, CEO of Pam Golding Properties.
  • Mount Verde Estate, a gated farming estate of 56 farms covering 2 500 hectares, was developed by the Voigt family on their farmlands at Hilton in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. They’re about to launch phase two, which offers smaller sites of 10 hectares and less, as opposed to phase one’s 30 hectares.Mount Verde is essentially a marriage of the farming lifestyle with secure residential living. There’s a focus on cooperative farming, and with the Voigt family farm operating the estate, there are economies of scale – farm equipment is on site, so it’s far more cost effective for the ‘smaller’ farmer. Many homeowners continue with other businesses, and 80 per cent of phase-one owners are actively farming, most of them specialised crops such as proteas and essential oils.

    In addition, there’s a growing active-lifestyle component, with equestrian and outdoor fitness facilities and running trails.

 

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A sophisticated gentleman’s farm at Val de Vie in the Franschhoek-Paarl Valley, Western Cape, offers the very best of every possible world

 

Steve’s dairy farm, Seaforth, is 500 hectares, with neighbouring farms ranging from a similar size to 1 000 hectares, with 400 to 1 500 milking cows. Increasingly frustrated with what he calls ‘being under corporate control’, he’s joined forces with nine other farmers to form a joint venture with a Johannesburg consortium, and they’re building a cheese factory. ‘We’ll produce and manufacture right here, as well as upgrade skills and create jobs for our local people. We’re making our own opportunities, processing our own product, and going to earn a little bit more – make a better return on our farms,’ he says.

Bottom line, they’re looking to increase the margin on their product by processing it themselves, instead, he says, ‘of giving it away at ridiculous prices. The large, over-dominant corporate companies dictate prices and they’re killing us. That’s why most farmers are diversifying – if you look at the input/output side of farming, no matter whether pigs or dairy, you have little say on the price of your product.’

There’s little doubt that economy of scale counts in dairy farming, where bigger farm sizes are more cost effective, but Steve believes the social repercussions of buying up neighbouring farms degrades districts. ‘Fewer, bigger farms mean fewer people, and the farming community drives elements like the schools. Fewer children, and the school goes downhill. If there’s a fire or a security issue, and you’ve bought out everybody else, who are you going to call?’

 

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The farm plot size at Mount Verde Estate in Hilton, Kwazulu-Natal, lends itself to specialist crops like proteas

 

He adds, ‘I bought this farm with a view to stay ‘‘until death do us part’’. My children love this place and I intend doing all I can to fulfil that dream.’ Then there’s the accidental farmer. Sarah Owen inherited a 132-hectare farm in Fort Nottingham in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The farm wasn’t in good repair, but it was extraordinarily beautiful, with its 60-hectare lake at the start of the Lion’s River. ‘Ideally, I just wanted to keep it to enjoy time with friends and family on the weekends, but that became a major financial drain,’ she says.

She’d just sold her antiques-cum-coffee shop in Durban, so she understood hospitality. ‘We converted the old dairy into Moo Manor, a double-volume barn with a bedroom on a mezzanine level.’ She and partner Curt Woolff, a landscaper, restored and partly rebuilt old sheds, even buying block moulds so they could make their own building materials. ‘We had a production line going and soon discovered it was more expensive renovating than starting from scratch,’ she recalls.

Sarah began with bed-and-breakfast accommodation, a restaurant and a shop, and recently put the finishing touches to Crystal Barn’s wonderful wedding venue and chapel in time for the first wedding in August. ‘Some days I can’t believe how much we’ve achieved… and how exhausted we are,’ she says. ‘Then we see the otters playing, hear the fish eagles call, and watch the most exquisite sun drop behind the lake. It’s breathtaking, and you fall in love all over again.’

 

Alarming Farming Facts

Statistics SA announced that the GDP had contracted by 1,3% in the second quarter of 2015, with the agriculture industry experiencing the largest fall in activity – it contracted by 17,4% quarter-on- quarter. South Africa is currently experiencing its worst drought since 1992, and agricultural business chamber Agbiz CEO John Purchase says that Agbiz expects quarter-three GDP figures to look even worse, as the full extent of the drought will only then reflect in the figures.

Decreases in the production of field crops (for example, maize, sunflowers and sugarcane) and horticultural products (such as citrus subtropical fruit) contributed to the industry’s decline. Economists red-flagged this decline as raising the risk of the economy tipping into a technical recession (two consecutive quarters of negative growth) in the third quarter of 2015.

 

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Recycled materials and quirky buys form much of Sarah Owen’s Crystal Barn in Fort Nottingham in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, where farm-style accommodation complements a charming chapel and wedding venue

 

Regulations on Ownership

Buying agricultural land in South Africa involves complex legalities that prospective buyers need to know about before putting pen to paper. Probing questions need to be asked of the landowner, and answers sought from a range of government and municipal departments.

  • Are there any existing land claims, or knowledge of future ones? (The window period for claims is still open until 2019.)
  • Who determines water-use authorisation?
  • Does anybody have mining rights on the land?
  • Are there any illegal occupants?
  • Is the land zoned for the purpose for which you intend to use it?
  • Are there any restrictions on the use of the land, for example, height restrictions for dwellings?
  • Are there any servitudes, either on the title deeds or between neighbours?

 

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Underberg dairy farmer Steve Roberts has diversified by joining forces with other local farmers – and a Johannesburg businessman – to build a cheese factory

 

Fact

South Africa is experiencing its worst drought since 1992. Agricultural growth was down 17 percent in the second quarter of 2015

 

Contact Details

 

Text: Anne Schauffer
Photographs: Liam Snaddon and supplied

 

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