When the opportunity to lay the foundation of his own farming business presented itself to Whernit Dirks at 17, he seized the moment with both hands.
He turned a stumbling block into opportunity. Today, Dirks is an award-winning commercial farmer in Piketberg in the Western Cape. There, he runs an ever-growing agriculture empire with his family, growing grain, rooibos and breeding Meatmaster sheep on close to 1 200 hectares of land.
New farming chapter
Genadeshoop farm is built on hard work, and the experience of both farmers and mentors who gave Dirks a leg up the agri-ladder. Despite his roaring success, he still chooses to lean on the wisdom and understanding of others.
“I’ve come this far because of the relationships I have formed with other farmers,” he tells Food For Mzansi.
“Agriculture brings people together regardless of race and colour. If we all work together, it’s possible. I would even go as far as saying that agriculture is the only thing that has the ability to bring our nation closer together.”
The 31-year-old has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. In school he would sell chips and ice lollies. Back home on the farm where they lived, he sold everyday essentials like sugar, coffee and bread.
“As a young boy, I always believed that I would be a businessman one day. I just didn’t know what kind of businessman,” he says.
“I want to buy land to ensure that I have a sustainable entity for future generations.”
When the opportunity to explore a career as a farmer presented itself to the young Dirks, he instantly knew what he’d be doing for the rest of his life.
As a teenager, he was working as a farmworker after finding himself in a catch-22 dilemma when he became a father at the age of 15. Dirks had to leave school and find work to care for his baby. In 2006, Dirks joined Windheuwel farm near Piketberg.
In the same year that Dirks started working on Windheuwel, the owner of the farm, Stephanus Richter, gave three of his workers the opportunity to start farming. They could pick three half-breed ewes to rear themselves.
Dirks and his uncle jumped at the opportunity.
Richter then rented out 100 hectares of his land to the two, who had proven their commitment to farming. Seeing their success and dedication, the owner offered them an additional 600 hectares to rent and work.
“When you’re in it, you realise buying feed for your livestock is not cheap. And no one is going to give it to you for free,” Dirks says.
“It makes me think, many people today want land, but once you’re in the farmer’s shoes, you realise that it is actually not that easy.”
Today, Dirks farms happily alongside his uncle Leonard Davis, father, Gelant Toontjies, and grandfather, Daantjie Romburg. Together, they are building a legacy for their family.
Dirks believes he would not have made it without the help of others. Also, he has no doubt that his success partially rests on the strong relationships he has formed with other farmers over many years.
“In this sector you need help. It’s that simple. But when you reach out to other farmers for advice, be serious about wanting to grow. They look at your attitude and seriousness. If you’re not serious, they’ll be reluctant to help.”
One farming relationship that has made Dirks a stronger farmer and businessman as that with friend and neighbouring farmer, Gerhard Vermeulen.
“What stands out for me about Whernit is his humility. He does not give up and he’s always willing to share his knowledge with others, especially me,” says Vermeulen.
Vermeulen previously told Food For Mzansi that his farming relationship with Dirks is actually mutually beneficial.
The farmer admits that he was not very knowledgeable about grain farming, but Dirks has assisted him. In return, he assists Dirks with sheep farming.
“Whernit realises that he needs to live according to the principles of the Bible; that in order to receive you must also give. He also strives to serve his fellow man,” Vermeulen says.
“agriculture is the only thing that CAN bring our nation closer together.”
Like his friend, Vermeulen too believes that agriculture has the means to bring South Africans together, but he adds “it will take more than agriculture.”
He says, “If after 26 years, you still want to evaluate one another in the basis of where we come from and our race, then you won’t make it very far in this industry or any other.”
According to Dirks, Vermeulen has offered him perspective on many of his farming woes, while teaching him loyalty and honesty.
“Something that I learn from him every day is financial discipline,” Dirks notes.
“I’ve learned that a businessman is a businessman and when you conduct business you don’t play games. Farmers have a tendency of looking for favours and discounts just because we know each other,” he says.
Together, the two are changing farming perceptions and Dirks hopes to pass down his knowledge with other farmers entering the sector.
But for now, he says his plans is to simply, “Farm! And grow as much as possible. I want to buy land to ensure that I have a sustainable entity for future generations.”