The Business of Farming
The drive from Riebeek West to Wolseley takes one through the beautiful Witzenberg and Skuweberg mountains. The area is perfect for farming and is renowned for it’s scenic vineyards and abundant fruit orchards. so it’s no surprise that we find ourselves stuck behind a tractor towing wagons loaded with grapes. The produce for our visit ahead though are pears, and more specifically Agri-Life Fruit (Pty) Ltd.
A major focus of the Old Mutual Foundation is economic empowerment, which is why we target the development of black-owned businesses that have strong potential for job creation. And Agri-Life is a case in point. This transformative enterprise is a consortium of black farmers in partnership with strategic white partners (VV4), who together have set up a multi-million rand fruit-packing operation creating almost 80 jobs. The Old Mutual Foundation has invested R2 million towards this project, in conjunction with additional loan funding from Masisizane Fund.
Agri-Life fruit farmers Raymond Koopstad (left), Trevor Abrahams (centre) and Charles Pietersen
Trevor Abrahams (57) is one of the farmers leading the consortium. A tall man with a quiet thoughtful air, he patiently explains to me some of the rationale behind this project. There are four areas of unlocking commercial agricultural profitability. The first is basic, farmers need to run a productive, well-managed farm using good farming practices. However, getting produce to market is vital in order to realise a profit from the crop. And in the fruit world, packing facilities are the second stage of the value chain. The third stage would be taking control of the export value chain, and lastly the fourth stage would be owning the retail space.
Harvesting forelle pears on Trevor Abrahams’ farm, Wolseley, Western Cape.
Agri-Life (Pty) Ltd is giving smaller black farmers in the area the opportunity of getting into this value chain. “The benefits for us,” says Trevor, “is that by jointly owning our own business in the packing sector, we can reduce costs by up to 60%.” But working within the value chain is a new experience for many of the farmers, and I ask Trevor about the biggest challenges in transitioning into commercial agriculture. He speaks of two major areas – the competitiveness of big commercial farmers in a formalised market, and the ‘hoops and hurdles’ of endless requirement for accreditations.
One example of this is that if the Agri-Life packing plant is to be approved to handle export fruit, they require British Retail Council (BRC) accreditation which sets minimum standards for ethical practices, quality and traceability of product etc. Currently an outstanding BRC requirement is the provision of sufficient bathroom facilities to accommodate 80 employees, and until these are built Agri-Life can’t pack export fruit. The impact for small farmers like Charles Pietersen is that his export quality pear crop must be packed at another export-approved packing facility which will be an additional cost upwards of R50 000.
Charles Pietersen take us to a viewing point overlooking his farm of which he is co-owner with the KlipRivier Kleinboere Trust.
On top of this, who could have anticipated a drought this year which would shorten the local harvest season? And frustratingly, that’s why the packing house isn’t operational on the day of our road trip visit (see images below). However, these are the realities of commercial agriculture and Trevor summed it up, “Farming is hard work, there’s no other recipe for success, it’s hard work.” But the Agri-Life partnership is pulling hard to address these and other hurdles. They’re a tough bunch of experienced farmers and businessmen with a lot of know-how in the team, but most importantly they share a progressive and transformative vision.
Export quality forelle pears farmed by Charles Pietersen, Kliprivier Kleinboere Trust.
In 2014, Trevor Abrahams was awarded Best Emerging Farmer in the Area (Toyota New Harvest of the Year award), and 2015 Agri-Life (Pty) Ltd was awarded the Transformation Award by the Western Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Images below provided by Agri-Life Financial Director, Jacques Stofberg of the packing plant at maximum production earlier in the season.
And we’re off!
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