In the eastern Free State sits the small town of Fouriesburg, surrounded by the glorious Maluti Mountains. Here Doug Osler produces award-winning apples in one of the most difficult landscapes of the semi-arid province.
Getting his apples to retail markets and in the homes of millions of South Africans and international consumers is no small feat. Here, roughly in the centre of South Africa, Osler and his team are up against hail and frost, which is part of the reason why there are not many new entrants to apple farming in the area.
“In the Free State, apples are different, and it is incredibly risky. It’s not just your normal planting. It’s a long-term thing and I think that’s why it keeps a lot of people out,” Osler says.
Osler is the operational manager of Lone Tree Farms, a fourth generation, family run agri-business. They fruit division produces mostly apples, and the company has a crop division which includes wheat, maize and dry beans on dryland rotation and potatoes under pivot irrigation.
Getting started, Osler says, farmers are looking at about R600 000 to R700 000 per hectare. This includes the establishment cost per hectare of apples, with water already available at the block and the land already worked. It means you’re probably only breaking even on establishment costs in year six or seven, if you’re lucky.
Then, to successfully produce apples in this climate requires strategies like putting up hail nets. This, Osler explains, is an added establishment cost of about R3000 per hectare.
Lone Tree Farms also battles hard against frost during September when the apples are blossoming. In 2015, Osler says, they lost about 95% of their crop due to frost.
So, what makes this farmer and his family stick to farming in these climatically harsh conditions?
Firstly, it’s a deep love for the land on which their family have farmed for generations. The farm was bought by Osler’s great-grandfather in the 1950’s. They initially started on 35 hectares and are now producing on 109ha on two different sites.
Today Osler, along with his brother Mike and sister Gill, is at the helm of running their commercial enterprise. Mike is also an operational manager, whilst their sister Gill heads up the finances. Their father, Guybon (69), is still involved and provides guidance and experience on the continually expanding company.
Secondly, in the Southern Hemisphere they have a competitive edge of coming in first into the market with Pink Lady apples. “On the export market we have an advantage of two to three weeks before other producers come,” says Osler.
Only producers from the Highveld region of South Africa have this advantage. Lone Tree Farms holds this advantage over many South African producers and other producers in the Southern Hemisphere.
About 30% of Lone Tree Farms’ crops are exported. The rest goes into the local retail market. They have a long-standing relationship with Pick n Pay.
‘I’m giving it three weeks’
Osler says while he grew up on the farm, he was never looking to join the family business. Initially he thought that he would go overseas to work in the corporate world after completing his studies in Cape Town.
At the time all his friends were going to London, so to him working and traveling through Europe sounded like a great idea.
But then an opportunity opened in their family’s apple packhouse. The manager and the foreman both resigned, and Osler got involved as the new packhouse manager in 2004.
“I said that I would give it three weeks and try it. It was a bit daunting.”
However, those three weeks were enough to convince him that agriculture was indeed the career path for him. “I started with a group of seven young workers. We were all young and it was such a great vibe.”
Bridging the cultural divide
Being in a management position, however, was not all fun and games. Osler had a rude awakening in 2015 when their business was threatened by frost that took out 95% of their crop.
“We weren’t able to increase wages,” Osler recalls. “We have a good relationship with our staff, and we had to go through a retrenchment process and unions came in. It was terrible and the relationship soured.”
Luckily, they were able to move on after staff went through a training course which Osler says gave them exposure to how businesses go through ups and downs. “It gave them insight to understand what the business was going through,” Osler says.
He believes that speaking the local language, Sesotho, has also aided his relationship with his workers tremendously and makes a massive difference.
“Growing up on the farm I was always exposed to it [Sesotho]. I’m not that fluent, so they say I have my own dialect of speaking the language, the longer they work with me the better they understand.
“I also think the more time you spend learning their language, there is massive respect for you. Respect is a massive thing in Lesotho culture,” Osler says.
A love of planning for the future
Osler loves looking at statistics and numbers to see if their farming business is showing actual growth.
“I love planning. Sitting down and planning for the future. Looking at what has been achieved, how much we’ve grown. I enjoy the statistics part of it. Are we on target and sharing with the staff their daily targets,” he explains.
This is surely one of the reasons why he won Free State agriculture’s young farmer of the year competition in 2021.
He also says this contributes to why they as a business are so successful. He thinks it is important that farmers invest in their business and make sure proper record-keeping processes are followed.
“Sometimes you have to take a bit of a chance and make bold decisions. But then record-keeping is important. You need to be able to trust the information and know that it is accurate.” Osler says.