Spend a Friday afternoon with Patrick Cornelius in the Langkloof and you will learn more about apple tree roots than you ever thought was necessary. His passion for farming is infectious and you can’t but help to root for him and his team to make a success of their enterprise.
And it is a good thing that Patrick has passion to spare, because there were times over the past six years that it was needed. To get the farm to where it is today took long hours, personal sacrifice and making hard decisions that did not necessarily win him fans in the local community.
Patrick and 103 community members were the beneficiaries of The National Government’s LRAD Farm Scheme in 2008 whereby they received the 669ha farm Appelkloof, located just outside the town of Haarlem. The number of beneficiaries gradually declined to its current number of 29 as those truly committed to the success of the farm decided to forgo profits in order to buy out those with limited interest in the farm and farming in general. This does not mean that there are no hassles at times, but it does mean that there is a team dedicated to making the farm a success.
Patrick has been working on the farm since 2004 as a general worker and got promoted to supervisor in 2008.
Four years later he was appointed the general manager of the farm and he and six other beneficiaries constitute the dedicated management team that is responsible for the day-to-day running of the farm.
Passion and dedication are needed to overcome challenges, of which there have been many. The biggest is the persistent drought that has affected the Langkloof area, severely influencing how many tons are produced as well as the quality of the fruit. Cashflow has also been a challenge at times, but the team understands the value of partnerships and they are in the process of establishing one with the Humansdorp Cooperative that will provide the farm with financial backing in order for much needed improvements to take place.
There is a need to remove some of the old trees and plant new cultivars, but this is not quite as simple as it sounds. There are key factors to look at, most importantly what the market currently demands and the predictions of what it will demand when the trees are ready for its first harvest. Secondly, once the variety has been identified they need to look at how suitable it is for the terrain and the quantity of water available. For Patrick and his team, these factors can determine the success of the farm.
To provide perspective as to how old some of the cultivars are, Oom Freek Cornelius, who is in charge of irrigation on the farm, is one year older than the oldest block of Granny Smith apple trees on the farm, which was planted in 1954.
The farm provides a rich history and evidence of the changing landscape of apple farming in the region, with cultivars that used to be profitable and marketable now no longer in demand.
An example would be Golden Delicious apples that used to generate a good income for the previous owner. Now this cultivar puts significant strain on the resources of the farm as it has a limited harvesting window and does not generate the income to justify keeping it. The partnership with the Humansdorp Cooperative will therefore allow the farm of remove the old, non-profitable trees and to plant new varietals that can put the farm on a profitable course.
Farming is not for the faint of heart, and Patrick and his team are sometimes faced with challenges that are more complicated than those facing a single owner farm. Apart from the normal challenges of drought, labour issues and ensuring that the farm adheres to all legislative requirements, the management team also has to deal with a demanding group of beneficiaries. With the reduced number of beneficiaries, decision-making is now much easier. They only have to engage with 29 beneficiaries, rather than the original 103. However, managing the different personalities is still a challenge that the management team at times struggles with.
Patrick and his team are aiming to change the perception that the land reform process up to date has been a failure.
With his team understanding that farming is a long-term investment rather than a short-term profit-making enterprise, they are well on their way to doing just that.
Ensuring the success of the farm will require investment from the team on the farm and from partners that understand and support the journey that the beneficiaries of Appelkloof are on. The team is willing to dedicate their time and efforts to ensure that this will happen.
If you have any doubts, sit down with Patrick on a Friday afternoon over a cup of tea or a beer and you will realise that the roots of success for this farm lies in the passion and dedication of a man that loves talking about tree roots.