It’s 5 am and before the sun rises over the Overberg region in the southernmost part of Mzansi, André Hans wakes up to get ready for another laborious day on the grain farm in Caledon where he works. He has kept this routine for as long as he can remember and wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I’m the happiest when I go out into the field in the morning. Standing there, looking at what you’ve done and accomplished in the field, is something I consider a miracle,” the 36-year-old proudly exclaims.
Hans and thirteen other agricultural workers with decades of farming experience work on a prominent grain farm as general workers. Their lives, however, changed when they decided to alter the course of their agricultural careers. In 2006 the group launched the Overberg Boerdery Trust, and started farming with barley on 68 hectares that they’ve since expanded to 135 hectares.
“Never in a million years did I ever think that I, an ordinary farmworker, would be where I am today.” – André Hans
“I have shares in a successful farming enterprise and it’s only the beginning.” It’s easy to understand Hans’ disbelief, considering he’d been a general agriworker ever since he dropped out of school in grade 10, almost 22 years ago. His parents were both agricultural workers and struggling financially. Hans wanted to help support his family, so his father, Martinus Hans, got him a job on the farm where he was employed. Five years later the farm-owner where the Hans family worked declared bankruptcy and the South African Breweries (SAB) took over.
Hans continued working as general worker until he and a few of his colleagues were encouraged by Derek Groenewaldt, a former agricultural services manager at SAB, to start the Overberg Boerdery Trust.
They approached the owners (SAB) and got the permission they had hoped for. The agricultural workers were offered 68 hectares of land to start their farming operation. They soon learned that managing a farm is a different ballgame to just working on one. Most of the members didn’t have skills like business management, marketing, banking, labour management and record keeping, which are all critical to run a successful farm.
“We also didn’t know much about contacting seedling agents and soil testing. It was overwhelming at first, especially when it came to the different terminologies that weren’t always easy to understand,” Hans says.
Luckily, the news that they would get funding made things a little more bearable. With financial assistance from the Department of Public Works and interest-free loans for two years from SAB Maltings, the group of agriworkers planted their first barley crops in 2007, supplying Overberg Agri and Unigrain.
Over the years, the Overberg Boerdery Trust continued their farming operations successfully, realizing the importance of agricultural support. In 2013, Grain SA started helping the group of farmers with agricultural advice and farming assistance.
“Grain SA has helped us a lot. Since we joined their farmer membership program, production on the farm has improved. When we return home after attending one of their seminars, we implement what we’ve learned. In my agricultural journey I have learned that you need guidance and help from agricultural institutions and Grain SA has done just that.”
In 2016, the Overberg Boerdery Trust members decided to increase their operations and leased an additional 65 hectares of municipal land, located outside Caledon, about 12 km from the SAB farm. The Cape Agency for Sustainable Integrated Development in Rural Areas (Casidra) helped them fund the lease agreement of nine years and eleven months.
On both farming properties, they make use of a rotation system that allows them to plant a new crop every year. The crop rotation includes canola, wheat, barley, and oats, which helps protect the soil and prevent pest and disease build-up.
Although the farming enterprise has managed to increase production since its inception, and is no longer dependant on SAB for funding, they’ve had to address some serious challenges.
“The drought has been harsh on our farming operations and we were forced to keep soil preparations to a minimum in order to boost the health of the soil. We are also faced with challenges like equipment and implements that we have to hire,” Hans explains.
Despite these challenges, Hans and the other trust members remain optimistic about their farming futures.
According to their chairperson, Christian Hans (no relation to André), the reason why they’ve done so well is because they understand the principles of teamwork.
“When you work in a team like ours it’s important to be on the same page. When one of the members pulls into a different direction it can a have a negative impact on the company and the team,” Christian explains.
Christian adds that they are happy to have André as one of the trust’s members. “André has a great passion for the agricultural sector, and we wish him well in everything that he’ll still achieve in his farming career.”
André Hans adds that he enjoys being able to farm independently with a group of people he trusts. “I still think of myself as a general agricultural worker though. I might have shares, but we still go out into the field and do the work ourselves.”
He encourages other agricultural workers to make an effort to grow in the sector. He says it is no use working on a farm and not having passion for it. “Why not start your own agri-business, even if it’s small? Things always look impossible at the beginning, until it’s done,” he says.
Hans is excited about what his farming future might looks like. “I don’t have the gift of seeing the future, but I’m happy because I know great things will happen. And if it happens that I start my own farming enterprise, I’ll definitely continue being a grain farmer.”