Changed by an ordeal he survived twenty years ago, Free State farmer Wessel Bibbey looked deep into his own soul. Today he is mentoring young and dynamic black farmers to prove that farmers have their own solution to land reform and inclusivity in the agricultural space.
The story of the land is one that is marred by heartache and resentment, the 51-year-old mixed crop and livestock says. Negative news headlines and a sordid past have perpetuated a divide within the South African farming industry.
However, Bibbey fervently believes, human relationships have the potential to move mountains within the agricultural industry.
With farming operations that span across the eastern Free State farming towns of Heilbron, Petrus Steyn, Tweeling and Frankfort, Bibbey says that there is a dire need to repair farming relationship in order to achieve collective success within the agricultural sector.
“God has a plan for us all, the agricultural industry is not immune to this plan,” he believes.
“Farming is like a calling. We may experience many challenges, like droughts, farm crimes and threats of null compensation (for expropriated land), but it is hard to give up on this industry. We keep momentum because God has called upon us.”
Suffering a light heart attack at age 30, Bibbey experienced an epiphany that set in motion the birth of an empowerment project he calls the Adama Land Reform Initiative.
Adama Land Reform Initiative is the brainchild of Bibbey and his wife, Estie (48), and first came into fruition in 2013. The generational farmer and his wife donated land and cattle for the purpose of raising a new generation of farmers.
‘It was hard not to be consumed by agriculture. My father had a vision for our lives, and we sort of fell into this vision at a young age.’
Theirs is a vision that is firmly rooted in empowerment and the incubation of agricultural students who have recently attained their qualifications in the sector.
“When young people complete their agricultural training at a tertiary institute, there is often a big gap between theoretical knowledge and practical ability,” he says.
“Many young agricultural students are not employable because they lack the skills. We use what we call a ‘family transfer’ model where the students can participate in everything happening on the farm.
“It acts like a parent/child set up where you have a farmer with years of experience who transfers their skills down to the student.”
No escaping the legacy
Bibbey recalls a time when his own father had laid the foundation of his own farming knowledge.
His late father, Eric, was a stern teacher who created a childhood atmosphere where it was nearly impossible for him and his brother Fred not to be “tickled by the farming bug”.
“My father was my mentor. It was hard not to be consumed by agriculture. He had a vision for our lives, and we sort of fell into this vision at a young age.
“It was already self-evident that we would farm. As we grew older so did our interests in agriculture,” he says.
Bibbey senior is the driver behind his son’s ferocious work ethic.
He shares a childhood memory with Food For Mzansi about a moment where he had taken a day off farm work to “slack” at a river with his friends and brother while on break from boarding school.
“We went fishing with our neighbours and had just settled in, readied the makeshift rods when we saw a farmworker running towards us.
“Catching his breath, he said to us, ‘your father is looking for you,’ I was panicked.
“Attending boarding school during the weekday we would head home on weekends and work the farm with our father. When we arrived, it was all a blur, but I do recall receiving one of the worst thrashings that has since taught me that there is value in hard work.”
A third-generation farmer, Bibbey senior died when Wessel was just a young boy. His mother, Alida, had to take the reins of leadership as the farming matriarch of the Bibbey Boerdery Trust.
‘It was already self-evident that we would farm. As we grew older so did our interests in agriculture.’
“We were forced to act on circumstance and take over my father’s farming legacy. It was our dream to farm, but at the same time our circumstances had thrust us into the industry.”
He aims to teach the young people he has taken under his wing the same value of hard work.
“The Bible warns us about lazy people. There are verses that preach that the Lord does not take kindly to lazy people.”
Mend relationships, then reform land
In order for land reform to be successful, Bibbey believes we must first foster and correct farming relationships.
While the Adama initiative is still relatively new, he says he has met many black students who have had positive impacts on his life.
“I am learning about diverse cultures and building bridges to better understand our differences. The students have become family, we sit around a table and share stories. That is how relationships are built, by sitting together and having open discussions.
“We are responsible for each other, and as such we need to take better care of one another,” he says.
“I think the most important lesson we can take from God is to give love in your heart to establish relationships and cultivate love.”
Passion is the key to achieving success in the industry, he says. Bibbey believes passion fuels consistency and purpose. “It’s not something you can just learn, you need to have a passion for this industry,” he says.
“When you are exposed to certain habits as early as I was it is hard not to love it. I had the privilege of being raised on a farm, my students did not have the privilege of growing up on a farm and being in nature – that is what drives me. I want to give these students an opportunity to develop a passion for agriculture in the same way that I had.”
See Bibbey in action on new TV show
- Bibbey is featured on tonight’s of ‘Vir die liefde van die land’, the agricultural TV show by VKB, Food For Mzansi and WYRD Films. In the show, presenter Ivor Price and farmer mentor Piet Potgieter meets remarkable farmers and their neighbours, mentors and communities who give them wings. Catch it tonight at 18:30 on VIA, DStv channel 147!