Tonight at 20:00, viewers meet the remarkable Alfreda Mars who farms just outside Moorreesburg in the Western Cape. Duncan Masiwa reports that initially, many people were skeptical about her future as a female farmer, but she proved them wrong. Be sure to tune in to Vir die liefde van die land on VIA, channel 147.
Farming is no longer a boys’ club. Just ask the 45-year-old grain farmer Alfreda Mars who excels in an often male-dominated space on sheer grit and tenacity. In the process she is proving the naysayers, non-believers, doubters and haters wrong while feeding the nation.
Mars is a commercial grain and sheep farmer and the owner of Middelpos Farm in the Swartland region of the Western Cape. Although she has only been on this specific farm for seven years, she’s been toiling the land since childhood.
As a little girl, she used to work shoulder to shoulder with her late father who had land in Ceres and the Karoo. On most days after school, she would follow in his footsteps, carefully observing him.
“My father was a good vegetable farmer. He farmed with sheep and cattle, but he really believed in his vegetables. He made a good living out of his farming,” she says in For the Love of the Land, a book co-authored by Ivor Price and Kobus Louwrens.
Unfortunately, the land was taken away from them and their family had to start a new farming life in Saron. After her father died, Mars started her own farming empire in Moorreesburg with her former life partner Evan Matthews, who passed away in 2018.
Blessed with amazing neighbours
Mars tells Food For Mzansi that, initially, many people had doubts about her future as a female farmer. “A lot of people were sceptical, but they realised that I was here to stay.”
Although she and some of her neighbouring farmers head-butted many a time, they are close friends and very dear to hear heart. In fact, she credits them for their amazing support and love despite them coming from worlds so different to hers.
Mars says, “Every time they visit me, they can see that there’s passion behind what I do. I’m not hiding in offices wondering what’s next. I am on the field doing something practical and I think that’s what they appreciate and respect about me.”
In grain farming, the presence of women farmers is still rare. Together with an army of farm-hers, Mars spent many years trying to change perceptions and to bring much-needed change in the industry. It remains incredibly difficult, though.
Even as a board member of Grain SA, she sometimes still receive group emails that read, “Good day, gentleman.” She says, “Being the person that I am, sometimes I remind them on purpose that, hey, be careful now, there’s a woman here too.”
One of Mars’ neighbouring farmers, Frans van Wyk, says he is impressed by what she has achieved. Today, Van Wyk freely shares advice and love although, admittedly, in Mars’ first year on Middelpos he too predicted that she will pack up and leave.
“Alfreda has made me realise that it is important to build relationships with your neighbouring farmers. We are all dependent on each other and should help each other wherever we can – despite colour and racial background,” Van Wyk says.
What he likes about Mars is that she is not afraid to ask for help. “I take my hat off for Alfreda. You can see that she wants to move forward and does not wait around for things to happen. She makes them happen.”
The future of women in farming
Mars believes many women are not interested in grain farming because they still view it as a male-dominated world. In the Swartland region, for example, there is only two female grain farmers.
“Women are used to working with flowers and vegetables. So, in that world, there’s no real heavy machinery involved and that type of stuff. I do not think women see a future in grain farming.”
Many women have since visited her farm in Moorreesburg, but they are quick to leave, intimated by the large machinery she operates.
“If you call yourself a woman in bone and marrow and you say to yourself, ‘I can do it and I will!’ then I believe you can achieve success in any industry. The problem is our women stand back for men way too often. We’re scared.”
Even as a board member of Grain SA, ALFREDA MARS sometimes still receive group emails that read, “Good day, gentleman.”
People also have perceptions of what a female farmer is supposed to look like. “But I surprise people every now and then with beautiful hair, a pair of earrings and painted nails.”
Paving the way for women, Mars believes that any woman with a passion for farming can find success. “Yes, there are challenges, but if opportunities are not grabbed by both hands we will never get anywhere.”
See Mars in action on new TV show
Mars is featured on episode 2 of Vir die liefde van die land, a brand-new TV show by VKB, Food For Mzansi and WYRD Films. In the show, presenter Ivor Price and farmer mentor Piet Potgieter meets remarkable new era farmers and their neighbours, mentors and communities who give them wings. The episode featuring Mars can still be watched on Sunday 18:00 and Monday 08:00 on VIA, DStv channel 147.