Success seldom presents itself without sacrifice, and for Sydney Claassen, these words could not be truer.
After walking away from a comfy government job with great benefits, Claassen answered the call of his heart and pursued agriculture wholeheartedly. Five years later, the 40-year-old runs a successful seven-hectare vegetable farm, employs about 20 agriworkers and has even collected awards in the process. The journey has been “thorny”, but the agripreneur has not once expressed feelings of regret for his midlife career change.
“I don’t regret one moment of my decision. It hasn’t been easy, but the moment you invest your own money into your business, you are more determined to make a success of it.
“Yes, it’s challenging at times, but I chose this path and I’m staying true to my calling,” he says passionately.
Locating the farm called Pinehaven on a map can require a hard look through narrowed eyes. It is hidden in the wine capital of South Africa, surrounded by farms owned by well-known farmers who produce top wines in the Stellenbosch region.
There he grows a variety of vegetables like baby marrows, spinach, green beans, broccoli and cauliflower. Compared to the farm plots that border Pinehaven, Claassen’s seven-hectare property might seem small, but the farmer refuses to be intimidated by the success of others.
“I always say we may not be a commercial farm with a turnover of R1 million a year, but what we do on our small plot must be able to compete with any other farmer in the district.
“I believe that if you can’t do well on one hectare, how are you going to do well on 20 or 50 hectares of land. You must be able to use your land optimally,” he says.
When he became his own boss in agriculture, Claassen knew that he had to go all in. He invested all his hard-earned money.
In 2015 he resigned from his job at the City of Cape Town, where he worked as a safety officer. He withdrew his pension money and cancelled his expensive medical aid plan.
He says resigning from his work goes down as one of the toughest decisions he has ever had to make in his entire life. “It was a big risk that I took, and I had no evidence that it would work out. I trusted in God to see me through the process,” he says.
“Agriculture is not a walk in the park. But if you stay committed and true to your calling then challenges will not deter you from your mission,” Claassen professes.
Despite being new to the sector as a farmer, it was not the first time Claassen had stuck his hands in soil. In fact, he has always had a hand for farming.
He was raised in agriculture and both his father and grandfather were agriworkers who toiled on commercial wine farms as farm managers. In 2007, when the family acquired the Pinehaven plot to rent, Claassen jumped in to help on days he was not at work.
“It has always been in us to farm. The only difference is that they did it for other mega farmers. And when they finally did it for themselves, they were selling their stock hand to hand,” Claassen says.
Joining the family business has brought a lot of positive change to how things are done on the farm. Claassen’s father and grandfather were only selling their vegetables to people in the community and at times could not even draw a salary for themselves.
Today, Pinehaven supplies six restaurants, three chain stores and members of the Stellenbosch community. Spinach is their biggest produce which gets harvested from four hectares all-year round.
Not only is the crop in high demand by his customers, Claassen appreciates that he can plant the crop anytime of the year because it is not bound to a certain season.
The challenges that Pinehaven has come up against include access to markets, water and corporate development.
Claassen says: “You can have the best team, ideal plot and access to water, but if you don’t have faith and include God in your plans to navigate through these challenges, then at some stage you will lose.”
He says that because farming is his talent, it has also aided him in overcoming challenges. However, he strongly believes his talent has been strengthened with the experience he has accumulated over the years. It is experience and talent that saw Claassen awarded as the Kaap Agri Supplier of the Year in 2018.
Claassen’s message to other farmers is one of commitment and resilience.
“Stay committed to your calling,” he says. “No season, whether good or bad, should negatively affect your commitment to what you do.
“Agriculture is not a walk in the park. But if you stay committed and true to your calling then challenges will not deter you from your mission,” he professes.