In an exclusive interview with Food For Mzansi, the Springbok prop Jannie du Plessis talks about his ultimate life plan: to be a full-time farmer in the Free State. He tells Jody Hendricks that the family farm should especially inspire newcomers to agriculture.
Maize, wheat, sunflower and cattle farming might be synonymous with the northern Free State, but two of its biggest export crops must certainly be the famous rugby brothers Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis.
Both are Springbok rugby players who started their careers with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein before joining the Sharks in Durban. And much like Mzansi’s premium wines, they were a big hit in France.
It was older brother Jannie, a medical doctor, who first came back home to join the Lions as a tight head. This move also brought him closer to Stirling, the family farm in Bethlehem where Brahman cattle are crossbred with Simmentals.
When the 38-year-old was a boy, the family had a dairy too.
“I was born on a farm near the Maluti mountains close to Clarence and farming is in my DNA,” the former Montpellier rugby star tells Food For Mzansi. “Life on the farm was very isolated. I remember the cold winters and moderate summers. Farm life has its own charm.”
Childhood days on the farm
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Du Plessis and his wife, Ronel, traded the Jozi city lights for the tranquility of the farm he grew up on.
“We had a carefree life; played barefoot with the children on the farm, rode horses and kicked balls. I could speak Sotho before I could speak Afrikaans because that was the language my friends spoke on the farm.”
Having played 70 tests for the Springboks between 2007 and 2015, it is no surprise that rugby has always been a huge part of his upbringing.
“Since I was a child, rugby has been a big love. My father, Francois, played for the local club. If we behaved, we could go attend his (team) practice sessions on a Tuesday and Thursday night.
“However, I had to leave the farm at a young age to go to residence (at Grey College in Bloemfontein), but I could not wait to return to the farm for the school holidays.”
Du Plessis was part of the Springbok team that won the Rugby World Cup in France in 2007. He also played for Montpellier for five years, and his brother, Bismarck, still lives in southern France near the Mediterranean sea.
Farming isn’t for the faint-hearted, he says.
“The time in France made it difficult to focus on farming. You come home once a year for three weeks and then it’s hard to just fall in, so now that I’m playing for the Lions it is easier to lend a hand when things go awry.”
Faith like a mustard seed
Back in the day, the family also farmed with Holstein Friesians, a breed of dairy cattle from the Dutch provinces of North Holland and Friesland.
“My mother, Jo-Helené, and them started with cows at the time. We had to milk them, and this is where my love for farming started.”
Farming brings you closer to the Lord and faith is important, says Du Plessis. If it does not rain for months, you can do nothing but pray.
“Even if you are the best farmer in the world, nothing will grow. That is why I believe farming is a calling. It’s in my DNA. My family experienced the droughts of 1991 and 1994. It cost us a lot of money to continue farming and survive.”
The severe droughts and tough times are also the reasons Du Plessis became a medical doctor.
“After the droughts and its negative impact on our family, my mother said we would not farm nor play rugby if we didn’t have degrees behind our name. So, I was aware from the beginning that I would not just be able to simply walk into the family farm.
“Luckily, my rugby career only started to ignite in my 20s. This gave me time to focus on my studies.
“Like rugby, I’m passionate about medicine and I’m happy that I was able to complete my degree (from the Free State University) early in my rugby career.”
A life beyond the rugby field
These days, life on the farm is considerably different from his carefree childhood days. His father, Francois, died in 2017 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for 20 years.
“My father’s health deteriorated when Bismarck and I were still playing for the Sharks. It was difficult for us to get directly involved with farming. My father milked (dairy cows) for about 48 years, but we have now sold it all,” he says.
What remained is a thriving mixed farming operation in the eastern Free State. The Du Plessis family proudly farms with beef cattle, sheep, maize and sugar beans.
Although Du Plessis remains dedicated to his rugby career, he has no doubt about his future and ultimate life plans.
“I know farming comes with many challenges, from safety to the role nature plays. But one day I would like to be proud of my cattle and farming enterprise. I would like to show it to people, especially those that do not know much about agriculture.”
The veteran prop adds, “I want them to experience things like breaking in a horse and feeding cattle. I also want to work well with my brothers to make our farm and farming a success.”
Through his illustrious rugby career, du Plessis has seen the world and shook hands with some of the most influential people. “But deep in my heart I have always been a farm boy. I cannot wait to start farming full-time after my rugby career.”