The sight of hundreds of cattle stampeding towards you may sound like the start of a nightmare for some. Imagine having no escape as you quiver at the thought of being crushed by the hefty bulls and heifers that were startled by a sudden movement in their grazing field. But Refilwe Coetzee (34) holds firm at this sight.
Unshaken, she is armed with a kierie and commands the panicked cattle to a halt. She guides the bellowing animals towards the kraal on her 2000-hectare family farm in the Northern Cape.
This act of bravery takes years to master, though. “I get kicked and still go back to show dominance. I breathe among bulls and have guts to scream at hundreds of cattle,” she says fiercely.
Coetzee was born and raised in the town of Magareng, which sits firm as the demarcation between the Northern Cape and the North West province. Together with her family she runs a livestock enterprise boasting cattle, goats, pigs and sheep.
She admits that it was mother nature and her mysterious works that drew her to the industry. “It’s that connection with nature for me. Livestock farming is beautiful because you literally get to watch life unfold before your eyes,” she says.
— FarmGirl (@Fifi_dvc) August 23, 2020
An added bonus, she says, is actively watching your money grow. “I don’t like walking around with a wallet and people always wonder why. Then I say if you want to see my money, I will have to load my cattle on a trailer and drive around town,” she bursts into laughter.
Farming has been a life-long investment for her, and the rest of her family, including her father, Daniel, mother, Martha, and younger brother, Lorenzo. They are all motivated by the infinite opportunities of generational wealth tied to the industry. “If something should happen to me today, I would know that I have left a piece of myself for my son that will keep on giving birth, because that is what livestock does.”
The Coetzees first began farming on the communal lands in Magareng in 2008. Since then her father has been identified as a beneficiary set to receive land from government. He has a wealth of experience in the agricultural sector.
‘Being a black woman is like being black twice.’
“My dad grew up farming and he instilled the passion that I have for the industry from a very young age. He always wanted to have something for us to fall back on.”
Coetzee matriculated from the Warrenton High School in 2002. Growing up in a small town has taught her to remain humble. “You learn a lot of respect and morals. These small towns practice old school lessons like having genuine respect for others, no matter their title.”
She was taught the tricks of the trade by the real experts in the industry, the agri workers on the farms. These are men and women who have ample insights to offer on the dynamics of the industry. “In farming we always say there is no failure, only experiments. I get advice from my elders; they will guide you and steer you in the right directions.”
However, the industry can be quite difficult to navigate as a black female. “Being a black woman is like being black twice,” she says.
The lessons from her father have been her guide amid the challenges. “I have learned to adapt. Men like to be needed, so when you approach farming you are a new-born baby. You must have that welcoming spirit. In order to get assistance, you need to be humble.”
The Northern Cape farming community has a history of white dominance. It is also a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking community. This combination can make it hard for black farmers to make their mark.
— FarmGirl (@Fifi_dvc) August 18, 2020
Coetzee makes an example of the auctions in the province which are mostly conducted in Afrikaans, making it difficult for black attendees to understand. “Afrikaans is the main language spoken at auctions in my community and it’s causing some controversy and miscommunication at times.”
The narratives around black female representation in the industry are changing, she believes. “It is just a matter of having that will to fight and pushing forward to make your place in this industry.”
‘When you think of thriving and surviving you think about long-term benefits and sustainability.’
Coetzee’s advice is simple for those looking to penetrate the industry. “Do your research,” she says sternly.
“Farming is not something you can start based off a whim, you need to know the ins and outs very well.
If you are looking into goat farming for example, certain Boergoats do very well in the Northern Cape, they like dry grazing conditions. You need to be very clued up about the environment.”
1 livestock (cattle) needs 10-11 hectares for grazing… so it’s 10 hectares per cattle. Also do urself a favour and ask Agriculture for a grazing chart🙏🏽🙏🏽…that’s if ur a free range livestock farmer 👩🌾 pic.twitter.com/WtkHCugDj1
— FarmGirl (@Fifi_dvc) August 7, 2020
The wait is long, but it is worth it. “It’s like an extra income that is very scarce for the first five, six, seven years. When you start you are not going to see a profit. You can’t just start and expect money within the first year,” she warns.
“Those kinds of expectations are for people who are in the business for a short term. When you think of thriving and surviving you think about long-term benefits and sustainability, like breeding.”
Coetzee adds that it is in your best interest as a future farmer to actively stick to a business plan. “These are your concrete goals on paper. You need to have a structure. Without it you set yourself up for failure and do silly things like compete with other farmers. Stay in your lane, always be sure of the moves you make and stick to your guns.”
Giving hands in the pandemic
Coetzee believes that the concept of farming has radically changed in light of the global pandemic. She says that people no longer see farming as a “dirty thing that uneducated people do. With many people losing their jobs amid the national lockdown she advises them that “nature is your friend, love her and you will bear fruits”.
Amid the pandemic, the family has extended a helping hand in the community of Magareng. The farm distributes packaged produce to elderly members in the community. “Every month we make food packages, we slaughter sheep and add some of the vegetables grown on a special plot on the farm that is dedicated to helping fight hunger in the community,” she says.
“Covid-19 exposed farming as that industry that will truly sustain you. It will never leave you out in the cold. It is that life-long bank that stays with you forever.”