Covid-19: ‘Keep your house clean,’ farmer advises rural employers

Willem Rossouw, managing director of Stellar Winery, the largest producer of fine, organic, fair trade wines in South Africa, and the largest global producer of no-added-sulphur wines.

Some 330 kilometres from Cape Town lies the small hamlet of Koekenaap, a patchwork of farms where grapes, beetroot, pumpkin, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and a variety of fruits are grown.

It is in this climate, cooled by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, that Willem Rossouw is the managing director of Stellar Winery, the largest producer of fine, organic, fair trade wines in South Africa, and the largest global producer of no-added-sulphur wines.

But even in this idyllic environment, Rossouw says the global covid-19 pandemic has altered operations and requires careful management to ensure the health of the farm workers. “Being so far from a town means workers are often not seeing what others see and therefore find it difficult to believe what this pandemic is doing to the world.

“This means that we follow Government procedures on covid-19 to the letter. Nobody comes onto the property without Government authorisation and any deliveries are made outside the premises, following protocol.”

This includes the sanitising of vehicles that bring staff to work and drive them home, as well as dividing teams into isolated pockets to ensure physical distance from other teams while working.

“It is our job to protect our workers, our community and our environment,” Rossouw says, adding that ongoing education ensures workers understand the importance of not infecting others at Stellar Winery, the largest employer in the region with a force of 300.

Each worker gives management a list of their grocery needs, and the parcels delivered to the winery gates. “People cannot work if they are malnourished. We are ensuring that they have healthy foods available.”

Impact on farm-to-table supply chain

As vintners know, timing is of the essence in determining the wine that is produced. “Due to the restrictions Government has placed on the transportation of non-essential goods during the lockdown, we can’t drive to Distell, the distillers in Stellenbosch, which means the value of our wine drops by more than half.”

Rossouw explains that this is because “rebate wine” can only be stored safely for a very short time, and the risk is that it then deteriorates into distilling wine, which is valued at half the price of rebate wine. “If all this rebate wine is to be sulphured up into dry white wine, the price of dry white wine will decrease significantly meaning losses in the wine industry.”

When asked his thoughts on the global impact of covid-19 on farmers, Rossouw says: “Devastation. Firstly, when workers can’t work, farms can’t produce. I believe we should be prepared for a potential crop fail in wineries next year,” he says, noting that many farms around the world are already struggling with workers being laid low by the virus or by their country’s restrictions. “However, Stellar Winery is in the very fortunate position of having Stellar Agri, the vegetable farming arm of the business.”

This enables the company to transfer many of workers from the winery to producing foods, some of which is exported to The Netherlands and Germany. “We continue maintenance in the winery section and focus on the vegetable production,” he says.

Advice for other farmers

Having a supportive banking partner is also essential, says Rossouw. He advises other farmers facing covid-19 to make sure that they have a relationship with a bank they can trust “in good times and in bad”.

“In our case, Grobank is working with Stellar Winery to get all our warranties in place and staying in regular contact. This is a great help under stressful situations, so make sure your financial institutions are there when you have questions.”

Knowing that their bank is willing to “go the extra mile” to assist at a time like this is very reassuring, says Rossouw. “We feel that we can count on Grobank because they are pro-active and taking a personal interest in our operations.”

Some other advice he would give to fellow farmers facing concerns over covid-19? “Abide by rules set out by your government; keep your workers as safe as possible and educate them all on how serious this situation is. Have regular meetings within the bounds of physical distancing and listen to what your employees need.

“Your farm is your home – keep your house clean and avoid any contamination from the outside. Use digital payments wherever possible and the buying power of your company to purchase goods on behalf of your staff.”