Whernit Dirks’ life is proof that your circumstances do not have to define your life path. His inspiring story is told in tonight’s episode of For the love of the land, a brand-new farmers’ show on DStv and Openview.
Dirks transitioned from being a fourth generation farmworker to the owner of a commercial-scale farming operationin the Western Cape. The episode featuring him will be broadcast at 18:00 and 21:00 tonight and 10:00 tomorrow morning. Be sure to tune in on People’s Weather (PPL WX) on DStv channel 180 and Openview channel 115.
In anticipation of the show, produced by Food For Mzansi in partnership with the VKB Group, Dirks chats to Gugulethu Mahlangu, a Gauteng-based farmer and participant of Food For Mzansi’s Sinelizwi citizen journalism programme.
Gugulethu Mahlangu: Mentorship has proven to be key to the success of a new farmer. Where does one get mentors? Is there some mentorship list we don’t know about?
Whernit Dirks: Sometimes this can be a difficult question to answer. There is no list for mentors that I know of. If you are farming and you are staying around successful farmers, to choose which one to be your mentor is still a difficult one.
What I usually do is use my suppliers (chemicals, fertilisers, irrigation) to mentor me. They have years of experience in their craft. It’s really a tricky quest to find a mentor, I have had a failed mentorship relationship because he didn’t want to see me succeed. So, my advice would be to choose wisely because there a lot of successful farmers out there willing to help.
It is very interesting to see that you grow rooibos in your area. Could you briefly tell us the requirements one needs to farm rooibos?
Currently the market for rooibos tea is under pressure because there’s quite a lot of rooibos farmers in my area. However, we made some good profits in 2015 to 2018. The requirements to farm rooibos is that you need land.
Secondly, your soil must be deep and sandy. The roots of rooibos grow really deep. Thirdly, you need a tea planter or good labourers to do it by hand. I prefer doing it by hand because the machinery sometimes plants where it doesn’t need to. Lastly, you need to time your planting just before the rains in your area, because that’s when it will start to grow.
Rooibos is quite simple to plant and maintain. The harvesting of it is the only part that will need time and care.
You started working as a farmworker and ended up leasing the farm you worked on. What do you think is the value of working as an employee first?
Being a labourer first was the best experience for me. I come from generations of farm labourers too. When I started my farming business, I already knew the practical stuff. I knew what was needed, especially for a successful grain and livestock farm.
To be an employee first has so much value. You must not underestimate its impact for your farming career. I didn’t need to learn to calibrate a sprayer and a planter, when to spray, take care of the sheep, the entomology of insects… Being a labourer taught me all of that.
Why do you breed Meatmaster sheep and what are some of its challenges?
The area I was in catered for Meatmaster sheep, but now I’m moving from that breed to Dohne Merino sheep because of my new location. The challenges I had with Meatmaster is that they are quite costly to feed, especially in drought season.
What advice do you have for people who want to rent huge pieces of land?
My advice is that you need to make sure that a contract stipulates everything you agree on through a professional lawyer. You must always remember that as a farmer, there’s always the option to go bigger, but sometimes we need to grow slow to get big, not start big and enter a contract with your entire life’s savings.
Farmers should do their best with the small scale and get it to its full potential before even looking for bigger land, so that you are well prepared for big land space when it comes.
Be sure to tune in tonight on People’s Weather (PPL WX) on DStv channel 180 and Openview channel 115 to see Whernit Dirks in episode 5 of For the love of the land. The episode is broadcast at 18:00 and 21:00 tonight and 10:00 tomorrow morning. Tune in on Monday evening at the same times for episode 6.