Night fades into morning light when livestock farmer Tumelo Olifant (30) begins his daily routine. Farming can be riveting work on most days, he says, but lately the nip of the chilly winter mornings has made it harder to get out of bed.
However, he soldiers on to the drum of bellowing and grunts from hundreds of cattle on a 420-hectare farm in Shaleng village near Taung in the North West.
This is paradise and the realisation of a dream that is even older than him, the young farmer says. His father, Kgopolang Petros Olifant (72), has been farming since 1985 on the communal lands of his home village.
“That connection between you and nature is soothing. Waking up early in the morning, listening to the sounds of the chirping birds or just the cows – it’s very calming.”
His passion for livestock farming has come to a point where he says he can even tell what kind of mood his herd is in by the sounds that they make. This is a skill that takes years of experience to master, he says. “When that heifer makes a snorting sound you just know it is time to move away from her territory and her calf!”
The farm life has been deeply embedded in Olifant since his childhood. As the son of a farmer it came as no surprise that he would follow in his dad’s muddy footsteps. “For as long as I can remember my father has been a farmer. I went as far as studying it and I hold an honours degree in agricultural management.”
Together with his father and brothers, Caiphus (40), Gift (38) and PK (37), he runs a weaning cattle farm called Olifante Boerdery. This business was founded 35 years ago to leave a legacy for the family’s future generations, he says.
He vividly remembers the moment his father counted the bonsmara herd and it tallied 100. “My father is a pensioner, and this was the first time we have reached 100. He was so happy on that day and applauded the progress we have made. He is still hopeful and believes that we can supply feedlots and abattoirs directly one day.”
While the farm may flourish today, it has been a daunting journey.
The odds are stacked against black farmers who wish to enter the commercial space, Olifant believes.
“Commercial farming is a capital-intensive business, it is a constant struggle for black farmers to secure sufficient support in the industry, forcing many to give up the venture before they even start,” he says sombrely.
“We don’t get assistance from anybody, it is demoralizing at times.”
The Olifants, however, have refused to back down. Despite many financial challenges and the constant threat of livestock theft, they remain committed to the vision of securing generational wealth for their children.
“We don’t get any help from anybody. You get promised that you will get a handout from government, you get promised that you will get a loan from Land Bank,” he says. “It is demoralising at times, but we are determined.”
Farming has been a big part of his life since he was a young boy. Growing up in Shaleng he remembers bunking school to watch cattle being vaccinated when government officials would visit the village.
“When I was about eight or nine years old those government programmes that they had back in the day would be in the village mid-week. I would tell my parents I am not going to school today. I am going to learn about agriculture.”
While he may have grown up around agriculture, Olifant never wanted to walk the same path as his father.
He matriculated at the Motheletsi High School in 2008. A year later he was enrolled into the University of the Free State’s environmental geography programme. This never fulfilled him, though, and in his second year he pursued his studies in agriculture.
Today he is proud that he made that switch. Growing up, his peers in the village would mock people who even considered careers as farmers.
“It has really been amazing to change the idea of what a farmer is and the idea that agriculture is only for uneducated people, as it was said in high school.”
Running a family business is no easy task. As siblings that work together there is plenty of room for conflict, he says. But they have worked out a fair and just system of mediation, a constant reminder that they are building a legacy for their children.
“Sometimes we have our challenges, but we know we have decisions to make. We don’t work on majority rules, we want everybody to have their say and then we decide from there on what we want to do going forward.”
It takes commitment and resilience to make it in the industry, says Olifant. Farming is a big commitment that is driven by consistency, he says. “Don’t go into farming because you think there is money, that is the wrong idea. Treat farming as a business, but you must be very passionate about it. Be consistently passionate!”