Dasberg Farming – a land reform success story

Gerswin Louw was the right man for commercial farmer Schalk Viljoen to bring in as a shareholder in Dasberg Farming, an agricultural transformation project in the Riviersonderend district of the Overberg. Livestock manager Gerswin has a solid background in sheep that he continuously grows while building his farming experience and his leadership skills. Gerswin says success in the agricultural world needs diligence, commitment and a lifelong passion for the job. 

Overberg sheep farmer Gerswin Louw was born and raised in Merweville, a remote village in the central Karoo. Although the area around Merweville is home to mainly sheep farmers, Gerswin’s family did not farm. But for this small-town boy there was never any doubt that he would one day become a farmer.

As a pupil at Zwartberg High School in Prince Albert, he got involved with the school’s vegetable garden project, cultivating carrots and onions, and selling the seed to local nurseries. The school’s ostriches provided the animal contact.

During the holidays Gerswin worked on a farm that belonged to the father of a friend. Connected to the farming world and engaging with the land and the livestock only strengthened his determination to make agriculture his career.

A learning curve

Motivated by his dream to farm, Gerswin worked hard at school. His excellent matric results paid off when he earned a Mohair SA bursary to study at Grootfontein Agriculture College in Middelburg, Cape. Later he was to discover that his mentor and partner-to-be, Schalk Viljoen, had also studied at Grootfontein. 

Gerswin completed the three-year diploma specialising in small stock and cattle. As part of his bursary obligation after graduation, he worked for three years at Cape Mohair and Wool as a wool appraiser and a junior auctioneer. Then he completed the National Certificate in New Venture Creation NQF4 leadership qualification, introduced as part of the PALS (Partners in Agri Land Solutions) project. 

PALS is a private land reform and development initiative originally established by Ceres farmers partnering with local communities and government. PALS was developed with the vision to grow an inclusive and sustainable agricultural economy, to create jobs and to encourage social harmony in communities.

The key objective of the PALS initiative is to create the right kind of environment to implement successful land reform projects and to empower black farmers. The PALS land reform models aim to be replicable across all agricultural commodities. 

In 2014, when Gerswin was working at improving his capacity in the livestock arena, Schalk was looking into land reform initiatives. Schalk had a heart for transformation that gave title to black farmers. His own father had spent his life farming for others and Schalk knew the value of land ownership in farming. While attending the Land Indaba of the Western Cape’s Department of Agriculture he met Gerrit van Vuuren, a founder member of PALS. 

At that stage PALS was testing its land reform model on two Ceres farms. A look at how those operations were working convinced Schalk of the way forward. The PALS framework offered a practical model for Schalk’s drive to implement his land reform project, one in which he aimed to partner and share with his employees in a commercial, large-scale business enterprise.

The process of transformation 

In 2015 Dasberg Farming was registered as a company with 49% of the shares owned by Schalk Viljoen Farming and 51% owned by Kipara Farming, a 100% black-owned company with three black managers and a personnel trust (in which permanent workers are the beneficiaries) as the shareholders.

This was the start of Schalk’s development project becoming a reality, partly because of the relevant input and workable models of land reform demonstrated by PALS, and partly because of good mentorship and the relationships of trust formed between the black and white farmers in the partnership.

The first three years of the Dasberg transformation project were tough. There were some major challenges involved in sorting out the capital gains tax (which would have been levied on the farm that Schalk wanted to transfer to Dasberg), assessing the environmental impacts, finding the finance for the new farm and getting the hectares scheduled for irrigation. Finally, in September 2018, the admin work was done and the irrigation rights secured. 

Then came the physical work of building a dam, with a 20m high wall, that inundated 9ha of land. The dam building was done in four months and on 21 February 2019, the 631ha farm, Van der Wattskraal near Riviersonderend, was registered as the land asset of Dasberg Farming. 

Schalk Viljoen Farming now owns 41% of the shares in Dasberg. The three shareholders in Eksteenkloof own a 51% share in Dasberg and the remaining shares are owned by the workers. Gerswin, a shareholding manager, runs the livestock project and manages between 8 000 and 15 000 merino sheep. Kipara farming also grows small grains (wheat, barley, canola and oats) in rotation, and produces citrus under shade netting. 

Production, marketing and planning

The agricultural landscape is known to be demanding and often difficult and Gerswin will testify to this. The wool market is volatile as prices ride on the fluctuating rand. Global events can have a significant impact on profitability and producers have felt the effects of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine through increased fuel, fertiliser and feed costs. 

Drought is another problem in the Overberg region. Gerswin has been in the area for seven years and has lived through very difficult times as dry weather continues for season after season and the drought tightens its grip on farmers who must rely on rain. In dry periods much of Gerswin’s focus is on feeding and watering the animals. In winter the sheep graze canola residue underplanted with lucerne and are fed a lick and maize every second day. 

When the animals are on green lucerne pastures redgut can be a problem but Gerswin controls it by putting out salt licks and hay. This reduces animal intakes of the high-quality lucerne pasture and keeps redgut at bay. 

Mature sheep are shorn every eight months, and lambs every four to six months. 

Access to the market is via OVK in Port Elizabeth. OVK officials classify the wool on the farm and the company sells the wool at national auctions. Gerswin and his team produce mainly very fine, high-quality (18 micron) wool for the export market. They also sell some of their lambs and older ewes for meat. These animals are sold and driven directly to the abattoir. 

Forward thinking

Hard work and a sound transformation model turned the dream of a land reform project into a concrete, successful agri-business but Gerswin says the dream must not stop here. In the future, he plans on an expanded breeding programme and more animals to supply his own on-farm auctions where Dasberg’s lambs and breeding rams could be sold. 

He has not managed to convince the other shareholders of the financial benefits and wisdom of this project yet but Gerswin plays the long game and has the patience and the vision to see things through. 

He clearly loves his job and believes that the farmer who takes good care of his people and his animals will go far. 

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