On a scorching hot day, two buses of students stepped onto the farm of Bernie van den Heever and Dirk Visser, Tamarak Mango Estate in Clanwilliam. The group of agriculture students sat down on a wooden structure overlooking the dam underneath a shaded tent. A solar-powered fan provided much needed relief from the heat, albeit over a deafening roar that almost drowned out Van den Heever’s presentation.
“You might not know it, but the climate of Clanwilliam and the surrounding Cederberg area is excellent for mango cultivation,” Van den Heever starts off his presentation, knowing the students were baffled by his unique mango farm situated far away from any other, similar farms. With 66 hectares of mango trees planted, Tamarak Mango Estate is the largest mango farm in the Western Cape area. “The hot, dry summers inhibit pest infestations and allow us to grow healthy fruit.”
Bernie van den Heever always knew he wanted to farm. He grew up on a sheep farm in Springbok, where his love for farming began.
“I wanted to farm, and I worked very hard on our family’s sheep farm on weekends and holidays while I was still in school,” Van den Heever shares. In fact, he worked so hard in the difficult and arid environment of Springbok that he lost his love for farming with sheep. But it was during this time when his appreciation for water resources started.
“There is so much life in water,” Van den Heever says enthusiastically. “If it did not rain, we couldn’t do anything. Once it rained, there was abundance.”
This passion for water remained constant in his life as he moved from studies in engineering to jobs on irrigation systems. But at the back of his mind, he knew he wanted to start farming again.
Knowledge, experience and attitude
He eventually started working on a mango farm in Hoedspruit, managing the farm’s irrigation, employees, scheduling, and pest management. He learned a lot here, but still yearned to own his own farm, closer to the part of South Africa where he grew up.
“You need to have three key characteristics if you want to farm: knowledge, experience and attitude,” Van den Heever says earnestly. “And if you want to own a farm, there is a fourth thing you need – finance.”
He speaks from experience, since he struggled for years in order to find a way to fund his goal to have his own farm. “Number four, finance, nearly cost me my dreams.”
After he entered into an agreement to co-own Tamarak Estate with Dirk Visser, he still needed to find the capital investments to turn the land into a mango farm. “You can’t farm dirt,” he laughed.
So, he planted rooibos to sell and start funding his mango plantation, and 16 years later he has 66 hectares of mango trees on a fully developed farm.
Supporting his workforce
For the past five years van den Heever has opened up his farm to students of Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute so that they may come see the practical workings of a farm. Not only is the farm always welcome to teach and train students, but they also strive to be sustainable, whether in their farming practices or supporting their workforce.
30 people are employed on the Tamarak Mango Estate year-round, and over 100 over harvest seasons. “We strive to improve and motivate our workforce through training and development programs,” says van den Heever.
The following are non-negotiable in workforce management and welfare on van den Heever’s farm:
- management training,
- first aid training,
- skills development training,
- health & safety training, and
- forklift tractor drivers licenses.
One of his employees, Ledencia Claassen, has worked with Van den Heever for the past four years.
“He is one of the most good-natured people I know,” she says of van den Heever. “He really looks after his employees.”
One of the aspects of working on the Tamarak Estate that benefits her the most is the building of a crèche on the farm for the employees’ children. “It is sometimes so difficult to find somebody to look after our children while we are at work, and now we have somewhere safe that is close to us where our children can be while we work.”
“Our plans for the future are integral to our daily management and operations. We endeavour to achieve our goals by accepting our green responsibility,” says Van den Heever.
“Our mangoes are cultivated through biological farming methods,” he explains when asked to elaborate on their green responsibility. “We spray as few chemicals as possible and always attempt to utilise biological products or approaches where possible.”
The farm uses smart techniques to ensure that soil moisture meters are used in every irrigation block to optimise irrigation so that the crops are not under- or over-irrigated. More than 50% off all trees are covered with shade netting to help prevent sun damage on fruit in the summer, which in turn increases the yield of the mango harvest.
‘You must decide every step of the way which direction you choose to follow.’
“Walk with your eyes open,” Van den Heever says about finding sustainable methods of farming. “See the opportunities around you.”
By not disturbing the areas among the trees, the natural veld can continue its normal cycles every winter, when wildflowers come into bloom giving habitat to natural occurring insects. Many small game and wild animals rely on the farm for sustenance.
Because of Tamarak Mango Estate’s good food and water supply, birdlife on the farm is also abundant, being situated next to a constant water source. By using natural predators, they assist the process of fighting pests in a natural and environmentally friendly way.
“You must decide every step of the way which direction you choose to follow,” says Van den Heever. “Even if it is a small step, choose the step towards sustainable farming.”
It’s all about diversity
According to Van den Heever, the most important part of farming sustainably is not to kill your soil.
“It’s about the diversity you cultivate – bacteria and fungi and the role they play in your soil. Rather spend money on building soil diversity than killing it”, says Van den Heever. “The more you invest in your soil, the more it pays off over time.”
Part of ensuring abundance in soil diversity is making compost tea on the farm that gets filtered into the irrigation system to fertilise the soil.
The last important thing that Van den Heever emphasises for farmers looking to exercise their green responsibility is, “There is no blanket solution. You need to experiment, and you need to be OK with making mistakes and learning from them.”