When you first see Izelle Janse van Rensburg, you may not automatically think “this is a farmer”. But that is the beauty of making your own rules in agriculture, isn’t it? Not conforming to anyone’s view of what you should be.
She stands there in a pair of dark, fitted jeans, hair straightened and face subtly done up with make-up. With her are her parents and the dogs, so lovingly shooed away as we make our way up the stairs and into the family’s formal parlour.
She was raised in Mzansi’s Free State province, and farming is all she knows and truly feels passionate about.
Janse van Rensburg is a generational farmer, coming from a long lineage of male farmers. Now, she is the first female in the family to take the helm.
“A lot of people didn’t expect me to want to farm,” she says as we drive through the farm in a bakkie. “My father only has daughters, and my life was different before I decided to farm. I was married young, and after the divorce, I decided to move back and work here. Die plaas se arms is altyd oop. (The farm’s arms are always open.).”
As much as her father was her mentor and taught her a lot of what she knows about farming, she tells Food For Mzansi, “I would like to forge my own path; to innovate and come up with better ways to do things. We can only improve.”
On a mission to become better
While juggling the paying of staff, balancing of books, tending to the sheep (especially when their offspring are young and vulnerable), and ensuring the land is healthy so it can keep giving, Janse van Rensburg also finds time to study. She is interested in anything that can help her be a better farmer, and this is a benefit in the long run.
“I did a course with a local university about how to handle pesticides,” she says, hair whipping back from her face as she watches sheep rush to and fro before us.
“A lot of people don’t know how to properly handle pesticides, and it’s very harmful when not applied just right. I know how to do a lot of things from my father teaching me, but taking courses also helps me have a deeper understanding of why things are done the way they are.”
As a younger farmer, she finds that more contemporary issues such as politics and prejudice can influence farms, and their safety in particular.
“Look at farm murders, for example,” she says.
“It’s an issue. It really is. A neighbouring farm had an incident not too long ago, and it leaves the entire community shaken. I can’t sometimes help but think that they may not be racially-motivated. The murders could be fuelled by convenience and access to farms at the end of the day.”
The role of organised agriculture
She says farming organisations have proven to be a great resource for farmers to make use of.
“I look at someone like Christo van der Rheede, who is making very big and important moves to help the farming community. We have to rely on ourselves, unfortunately. If there are issues such as bad roads or an increase in farm attacks, we have to find ways to look after ourselves.
“Organised agriculture helps us to do that. We have our WhatsApp groups where we share important information and give one another advice. Farmers may live far apart, but we are a close community.”
As we drive back to the family home, Janse van Rensburg glances into her rear-view mirror. Some of her employees are sitting in the back of the truck, some laughing and chatting, others reserved and staring into the distance.
“Some of these men have been on this farm since I was a baby. Their fathers helped my father. They’re part of my community too. We have to treat one another well and stick together.
“Sometimes things can get rough, because life on a farm isn’t easy. But we can usually weather through and make it when we are there to support one another.”
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