Home Changemakers Inspiration Family business: Adaptability key to build farming legacy

Family business: Adaptability key to build farming legacy

Helping new farmers start out is a great feeling, says Free State grain farmer Nic Meyer. He is also the founder of an international gluten-free grain producer and loves seeing the growth in the beginner farmers he mentors

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One day you’re at the top and the next you’re not. Sometimes you have three great years and then the exact opposite. This is how Free State grain farmer Nic Meyer (61) describes agriculture; an industry his forebears have dedicated more than seven decades of their life to.  

“I grew up on the farm,” says Meyer, who lives just outside Bloemfontein.

“My family have been farming with grain on our family farm, Merino, since 1944. My grandfather bought the land and my father took over and acquired an additional thousand hectares of land.”

Meyer has been farming here for the past 38 years.

ALSO READ: Breaking family cycles and building a generational legacy

Farm until the wheels fall off

Getting involved in the family business had its ups and downs, Meyer says. For example, between severe droughts and loan pay-backs with high interest rates, there were many challenging times that could have led to him abandoning the farm.  

family business, grain
Marti and Nic Meyer with their grandson, Phillip. Photo: Duncan Masiwa/Food For Mzansi

“But as a farmer, you farm for the love of agriculture. Agriculture should be your love. You don’t associate it with money and a glamorous lifestyle.

“No, this industry is hard work. Sometimes you don’t break even.

“Then there’s also the climate that does not always play along. So, you see, it’s not always easy, but we’ll drive the bus until the wheels fall off.”

With Meyer at the helm, the family business grew in leaps and bounds. What started in 1944 as a 1 000-hectare agri-business has morphed into 2 000 hectares of maize, sunflower, teff, chia and quinoa. 

Avoid stagnation in farming

“I bought a number of farms to cultivate as an economic unit and my brother continued to farm on Merino. He also acquired more farms where he and his son currently farm,” explains Meyer.

“Taking over from your parents, you have to buy them out again and maintain them. Therefore, it is important not to stagnate but to work hard and buy your own land because the family is getting bigger and bigger.”

Currently, Meyer farms alongside his daughter, Carmen, and her husband, Le Royé van der Merwe.

“Farmers who can’t adapt to changes will surely fall behind.”

The Free State dynamite has also worked hard at becoming one of the best gluten-free grain and flour producers in the country. His second company, Icon Food International, has an impressive global trade footprint.

Icon Food International was established in 2009 and started out as a small factory. In 2016, it moved into a brand new, state-of-the-art plant. Then, in 2017, a second factory was built, now boasting a world-class milling plant.

ALSO READ: Free State, meet your new Young Farmer of the year

Hard work and costly mistakes

Meyer is grateful that after all these years his family is still able to farm, growing and expanding their business.

“This year we were able to start looking at precision farming. In Bloemfontein, we were the first. Many said we were wasting our time with it, but we proved them wrong,” he says.

family business, grain
Nic Meyer’s daughter, Carmen, and her husband, Le Royé van der Merwe, with their three kids, Mia, Phillip and Kiara. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Precision farming is an agricultural approach in which inputs are used in precise amounts to increase average yields, compared to traditional cultivation techniques. It involves modern technologies at every stage of work.

Meyer’s success can be ascribed to hard work, perseverance, sacrifice, and also a number of costly mistakes.

“Five or six years ago, we invested in fertiliser worth R1 million on land that we intended to plant maize on. But then we didn’t get rain in November and December.”

Meyer explains that they had to think on their feet. That season they planted teff as an alternative commodity.

Staying ahead of the game

The agricultural landscape, Meyer says, has changed a lot since his entry in 1983.  

“Many standard practices remain the same, such as land preparation and ploughing. My grandfather told my father at the time, you can try all the other new things, but just do not sell your harvesting equipment because you will need them.”

Technology, he recognises, has caused a great revolution in agriculture, forcing farmers to keep up.

family business, grain
The Meyer family runs a fourth generation farming business in the Free State. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“It’s like a computer that has to be upgraded every one or two years, otherwise you’ll fall behind. Remember, crops change, so does the climate. Farmers who can’t adapt to the changes will surely fall behind.”

These days, Meyer is less involved in the day-to-day running of the farm and focuses more on his other business ventures.

His children are now starting to expand the family legacy although, every now and then, he visits the farm just to stir things up.

Meyer and his wife, Marti, have been married for nearly 38 years. She describes him as “vol draadwerk”, an Afrikaans-language phrase for someone who can be full of nonsense.

“When we’ve been away from the farm for a long period of time, I sometimes ask him to come to the farm,” says Marti, laughing. “After a while, the children call asking me to fetch him because he is driving them crazy. Then I ask them, ‘Why do they think I sent him there in the first place?’”

Nic Meyer’s top tips for farmers

  1. Find a mentor who can journey with you: “It’s a great feeling to help farmers starting out. It’s also nice to see that the farmer you are mentoring, is growing.”
  2. Know your stuff: Make sure that the instructions you give to workers, you can execute yourself. “Don’t just give instructions and leave it there,” he says.
  3. Faith is important: “What are you even doing in agriculture if you don’t have faith? When you’re a farmer, your whole existence depends on faith.”  
  4. Ask many questions: Farmers must be willing to get advice from experts and should not be afraid to ask questions. “In agriculture, or any other industry, there is no such thing as a stupid question.”

ALSO READ: Mentorship: Farming is not a solo show

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Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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