“You grow up fast. You work hard. You learn a lot. And then you make money.”
Annalea Van Niekerk (25) says she was just six years old when her father, Danie, would recite this exact mantra to her overlooking the vast fields of their 600-hectare land in the Free State town of Reitz.
These words would serve as her guide towards building her very own cattle breeding enterprise called the Sonador Stud.
The town of Reitz is nearly 300 kilometres away from the capital of the Free State and is abuzz with plenty of agricultural activity. It came as no surprise when Van Niekerk follow the footsteps of her lineage tied to the farming town.
For as long as she could remember the Free State-born cattle farmer has been dreaming about growing her very own cattle farm. Her dream came to fruition in her teens when she started farming on the family farm.
“It was just always in my blood. I love working with animals and nature and I want to feed the nation, that is my main goal to help other people,” she says.
Today her life can almost be likened to that of a modern-day cowgirl. Boots muddied and armed with a knopkierrie, her mornings begin bright and early and end with her sharing her adventures of the farm life with her family.
Van Niekerk is amongst three eastern Free State farmers in the finals of the 25th Free State Agriculture (FSA) young farmer of the year awards. The only female contender, she says the dynamics of being female and a farmer can be turbulent to navigate at times.
“I have had my fair share of ups and downs,” she says.
“Being a woman in the farming industry is very tough. It feels like you need to prove yourself even more than a man needs to in the sector.”
However, her 25-year farming background and foundation laid by her father and uncles have eased her into the industry.
‘I want to feed the nation, that is my main goal to help other people.’
Growing up on a farm, Van Niekerk remembers a carefree childhood.
Once she had completed her home-schooling activities with her mother, Van Niekerk says that she would often ride along with her father on his bakkie doing maintenance checks around the farm. Her easing into the day-to-day operations was gradual and began from a young age.
“There were lots of things to jump off of and I would walk for hours playing in the fields. You learn to be self-reliant, creative and patient,” she says.
She would soon be given more responsibility on the farm. “It was definitely not an easy way to grow up, but I can’t imagine what my life would be without it.”
She was six or seven when she was first given the easy tractor driving tasks. “You had to be responsible and you learned to handle it. A couple of years later and they began trusting me with even bigger tasks!”
Today she is a jack of all trades. “You work and spend time with your family. You learn about electricity, diesel engines, fabrication, machining, welding, building, problem-solving, driving, business, math… The list goes on.”
Today she farms side by side with her father. The enterprise has been split amongst the duo, with Van Niekerk senior handling the grains and crops planted on the farm whilst his daughter manages and runs the stud farm, Sonador Stud, breeding Sussex cattle.
“People just assume that its only men who farm and when they realize that, hey, there are actually women in the industry, they underestimate you. They think you cannot do it,” she says.
“Time and time again I have had to prove myself. Now I see more and more people beginning to support women in farming and making people aware of incredible women who are farming.”
The 600-hectare mixed-agriculture enterprise employs five permanent workers and offers seasonal working opportunities to youth from neighbouring farms. “My vision and mission are still to create more jobs and opportunities and give back to the community,” Van Niekerk says.
‘Agriculture is not just something that you do, it’s a love and a business.’
The most daunting part of being a young woman in agriculture is speaking up against a room full of seasoned farmers, she says. “As a woman it’s been tough to show people that you have a brain and have opinions,” she says.
“Women have an extremely important role in agriculture today and I am seeing it more and more. We definitely bring more of a managerial insight to the industry,” she adds.
She has a message for the stern “old boys” like her father Danie, who have become champions of change and inclusivity. “Teach us respectfully without tearing us down or excluding women. Show respect as a farmer. Give us advice and reassure us of our place in the industry,” she says firmly.
She adds, that “women should also be more receptive to male advice and then it is up to us to decide which methods work for us.”
Van Niekerk advises prospective farmers to always be imaginative in building their enterprises. “Agriculture is not just something that you do, it’s a love and a business,” she says.
“Don’t be a dead fish and go with the flow, do your own thing. Think what would work best for you and just go for it.”