Pruning fruit trees is an art and a science, and Charles Pietersen is the artist and barefoot scientist. He spent the past 40 years building this knowledge and it’s finally opening the right doors in the agricultural sector.
Thirty years ago, as the eldest son in their family, Pietersen had to leave school to become the sole breadwinner. As a 16-year-old filling his father’s shoes as a labourer on a farm near Wolseley in the Western Cape, he only earned R60 per week supporting his mother and five siblings.
“It was a big responsibility, but that’s how things worked then. If the man of the house is not able to work, his children had to step in. I worked and my sister also helped where she could,” he adds.
It was not his chosen path, but today Pietersen says he’ll give his life to agriculture, and growing fruit trees is his first love. “A fruit tree is alive, you have to talk to the tree to help it grow,” he says.
Born and raised on Rora Farm in Wolseley, where his father was a tractor operator, Pietersen grew up among the fruit orchards. Always keeping a close eye on how the trees were being pruned and treated.
Petersen’s schooling started in Montana Wolseley and was followed by a few years of secondary school in Ceres. When his father, Gert Jacobus George started suffering from chronic back pain after years of driving tractors and continuous hard labour, he left school in 1988 in what was then standard eight. Although it had not been part of his plan, he started as a general worker on the farm where he was raised.
As with most workers on farms at the time, other agri-workers with more experience guided him. “You were taught how to prune the trees and built up experience by watching and repeating, but we never understood the rules about why we did what we did,” he adds.
Over time he realised that agriculture and farming can offer him so much more.
“Things changed when I really started understanding farming from root to tree and that’s where my love developed.” Charles Pietersen
The real transformation began when a farming consultant, Christo Strydom, joined the farm where Pietersen worked and taught him and a few other men the rules of pruning. Now he had the chance to improve his skills and slowly started familiarising himself with the rules of how things are done in the orchards. “My outlook in life is always if you don’t know something, then ask,” Pietersen adds.
In 2000, after working on Rora Farms for 10 years, Pietersen moved to Romansrivier Farm to work with Niels Zeeman. Once again using his skills to get to a position in management at Zeeman’s farm in Wolsely where he worked for 19 years. “By this time my sisters and brothers had started working too, which meant I could follow my farming dream.”
Reaching the farming dream
In 1999, through the South African government’s land reform programme, Pietersen and a number of other aspiring farmers formed a trust and acquired a piece of land from his employer at the time and started to farm in Kliprivier near Wolseley. This was not an easy task, because farming, he says, is a long term investment and some of the other farmers pulled out.
“For about two to three years we farmed with beef cattle, then we started growing butternut, until we were advised to invest long term and plant fruit trees,” Pietersen explains. To improve his farming skills, Pietersen took a number of courses. “I completed a one year course in agriculture at the Koue Bokkeveld Training Center and passed with 92%,” says Pietersen.
In 2015 Pietersen and a few other farmers who formed part of the initial farming cooperative in Kliprivier started looking at alternative land to farm on. After some negotiation they found a new piece of land that was ideally located close to Kliprivier.
A farm to call their own
Two years later Pietersen, Cashwill George and Hendrik Phillips, with administrative support from Veronika Sauls, bought a 51 hectare farm with a loan from the bank.
Pietersen says the name of their farm, Lankgewag (“long awaited”), is very fitting. “We really had to wait a long, long time before we got here and even now that we are here it’s been a struggle,” he adds.
There are five agri-workers who work permanently on Lankgewag. He explains that they had to cut back after a disagreement with a service provider ended up in court. This was a major setback and, in the process, their new farm took a huge dip.
“This was a very difficult time for us. I had sleepless nights, but we appointed a lawyer that’s been handling the case and the money is slowly being paid back,” he says. Like in all new business ventures, even now Petersen and his partners faced a few unexpected challenges. One of these was not having any idea on how they were going to pay for harvesting the 2019 fruit crop! But this didn’t stop them.
Another setback was not realising that they were responsible for doing an Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) on 19 hectares of the farm when they initially bought the farm. Dealing with this also hindered their planned operations.
However, he believes that “no one is ever too good to never get bad and you’re never too bad to do better”.
Keeping this in mind, Pietersen continues to share his knowledge with the workers and he hopes to improve their skills through training courses at the agricultural institutions.
Pietersen is a family man. He proudly talks about his wife Elize and his two sons and two daughters. And who is most likely to follow in their father’s footsteps? Pietersen says that his youngest shows a keen interest at age 13. “He is always following me around on the farm and I have high hopes of sending him to Elsenburg College of Agriculture one day,” Pietersen says.
Since he started farming in this venture four years ago, Pietersen hasn’t taken a holiday. How does he relax? He says that his only down time is when he goes fishing.
“I didn’t have a chance at much of a childhood and I had very little time for play, but my father and I enjoyed fishing together. This is how I usually get some down time when things aren’t too busy on the farm,” he says.