Not everyone would gravitate towards a career that involves endless days of strenuous work and zero off days. Oh, and dismiss the thought of ever retiring.
But in 2003 Eastern Cape-born wool farmer Eben Du Plessis was 22 when he cut his American adventure short, heeding the call of the land. He came to farm alongside his late father, Johannes Du Plessis, in a pursuit to grow the family farm passed down from generation to generation.
Du Plessis (40), a third-generation sheep and cattle farmer, has taken over Macassarfontein Merino, a thriving sheep stud and wool enterprise built by his great-great grandfather who trekked from Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape to the Karoo.
His passion for agriculture is shared by younger brother Jacques Du Plessis (35). Together the sheep farming duo keep the family legacy alive on a livestock enterprise housed on 10 000 hectares between Colesburg in the Northern Cape, and Middleburg in the Eastern Cape.
“The love of animals called me back to the Karoo,” Du Plessis proudly declares.
The main pursuit of the livestock enterprise is their most prized possession, the flocks of Merino sheep whose wool is traded on global markets. Their Black Angus cattle are spread over four farms near the provincial border towns. The farm is also home to a Merino stud which produces top rams sold at local auctions.
‘There are a lot of farmers that are going to be forced to let good colleagues go because they can’t afford them anymore.’
Du Plessis may have been in his early twenties when he heeded the Karoo’s sweet serenade to farm, but he had long had his eyes on developing skills in agriculture.
“I went on an overseas trip to America after I studied agriculture in 1999. Initially I thought I would study wine farming at Cape Tech, but after a year I realised my heart was in the Karoo and I wanted to farm with sheep,” he says.
Amongst the Du Plessis clan, the story of Macassarfontein is a bit like an old wife’s tale. “The story goes, one of the boreholes that they dug up here, this pungent gas that was released smelled like Macassar oil,” says Du Plessis.
‘I did it for love. The love of the land’
Like his father before him, Du Plessis, took the reins as family patriarch when his father passed away in 2015.
That same year a five year nightmare for farmers throughout the country unfolded as they battled to keep agri-businesses afloat when faced with debilitating high temperatures and dry conditions caused by the drought.
Du Plessis counted amongst those who have managed to weather the storm, building a merino stud that exports wool to Mzansi’s biggest export market for the commodity, China. “We have been in that business for five years and it’s growing nicely. We have had our ups and downs. I mean the wool market, which is our main income, goes up and down.”
Bearing the cross of being a Karoo farmer has its challenges. “The Karoo farmer is a price taker at this stage, not a price maker. I think that’s one of our biggest negatives, we have to take the prices that we get offered for our product and are very dependent on the market.”
‘I won’t have a farm without my workers, we are in this business together.’
Challenges arose for the wool farmer during the height of the lockdown in April and May 2020, as winter months are the beginning of the wool season in Mzansi. “Exporters were not buying wool when Covid started, it had a negative influence on our wool market.”
A glimmer of hope presented itself mid-February 2021, when the market started on a positive trend, rising by 4%. “It is definitely impacting us on a positive level because we are getting ready to sell at a later stage, if the markets keep going up then it will benefit us tremendously,” the wool farmer says.
Also read: Drought wreaks havoc on sheep industry
Farmer worries come with the territory
You would be mistaken if you thought that reaching commercial farmer status would be the end of your worries, says Du Plessis.
Currently the minimum wage increase is causing him many sleepless nights.
“There are a lot of farmers that are going to be forced to let good colleagues go because they can’t afford them anymore,” he says.
“Our product prices have not been that great, but our expenses have just skyrocketed. On my own farm I must look at what I can do, the less people you have the better you can look after them.”
Owning a farm nearly 80 kilometres from the nearest town has made the farmer and his men co-dependent. “We have a different lifestyle here; they can’t just go hike or get on a taxi to go to town.
‘If you start looking at all the negatives that you are facing you won’t get anywhere in your business.’
“I won’t have a farm without my workers. I said to my wife the other day we should stop calling them workers and refer to them as colleagues because we are in this business together, we are actually partners,” he says.
Another looming threat for the South African wool farmer is Rift Valley Fever, he adds.
“If Rift Valley gets confirmed in South Africa then the wool markets in SA will shut down. There will be no income through your wool. Just like the snap of a finger, when Rift Valley fever gets diagnosed on a farm, it’s over.”
As a farmer you will never get rid of the weight on your shoulders, he says. So, keep your chin up and continue working the land regardless of worries.
“If you start looking at all the negatives that you are facing you won’t get anywhere in your business. Concentrate on farming and look at the positives. Deal with the issues as they come.”
As a farmer on the brink of being labelled “seasoned” he advises young guns on the rise to always listen to their elders. “Always take advise from a farmer with experience,” he says.
Du Plessis also adds that there is no room for slackers in the sector. If you are not going to be passionate, then you should do something else. “Farming looks easy from the outside but if you don’t have any passion for the animals or whatever field you are interested in then you shouldn’t be in the sector.”
Du Plessis shared five lessons that have stood him in good stead for maintaining farmer and farm colleague relations.
5 rules for good relationships with my farmworkers:
- Mutual respect is crucial.
- You create loyalty through hard work.
- Give them an interest in the business.
- Create a safe and enjoyable work environment.
- Realise that you are not just an employer, you are a mentor. Be prepared to educate and uplift.