His willingness to roll up his sleeves and learn has paid off for Jimmy Botha, a Westbury native who produces various herbs and vegetables for high-end retailers such as Woolworths and Pick n Pay along with his agronomist daughter, Lerato. The duo is poised to take their family business to even greater heights, as Peter Mashala found out.
Fifteen years ago, Jimmy Botha walked through the gates of what is known today as Inspired Leaf Farm and Tila’s Herbs Farm, with nothing but a hunger to succeed in an industry he knew nothing about. To make matters worse, the infrastructure on this newly purchased 22ha farm in Tarlton, northwest of Johannesburg, was dilapidated.
It had little going for it besides a rundown house and seven hydroponic tunnels that had burnt down.
Jimmy, born in Sophiatown and raised in Westbury, was 45 years old and recovering from a failed telecommunications venture, which he’d abandoned as soon as the opportunity to farm – long a dream of his –presented itself.
This chance came about through a chance meeting in 2004 with Carl Bourgois, a US tourist and property developer who wanted to invest in land in South Africa. Jimmy managed to convince Carl to invest and they formed a partnership, with Carl funding the purchase of the farm and providing seed capital.
Faced with the enormous task of getting the farm into shape, Jimmy quickly realised he would need guidance and his neighbour, Johann van den Bosch of Jomajoco Farms, was happy to oblige. “You have to know when you are in too deep and ask for help,” Jimmy recalls. Johann did not only offer mentorship but also allowed Jimmy the use of Jomajoco’s packhouse to pack his products for the market.
Jimmy’s first tasks were to repair the tunnels, fix the fences and equip the boreholes. Then he had to figure out what he should grow. Based on the advice he got from other farmers in the area, he decided on herbs and, to start off, he planted basil. For his first crop his neighbours assisted him, using their own money to buy him 21 000 basil seedlings, which he planted in seven tunnels.
“My first big client was Impala Fruit and Veg in Northcliff, which provided me with a steady market. It is still my client today,” says Jimmy. Thanks to the high quality of his first crop, many other small greengrocers in Johannesburg started placing orders with him.
Jimmy says he spent years making silly mistakes, including spending too much on service providers for things he could have done himself.
“But I don’t regret all of these mistakes, as some served as important lessons. Farmers should always start small, try to tackle tasks themselves and save as much money as possible.”
As his skills and knowledge grew and his product line expanded, Jimmy’s passion and hard work impressed Johann so much that he offered him an outgrower contract to produce lettuce for Jomajoco. By this time, Jimmy’s operation comprised 21 tunnels, each 30m x 10m in size, and three shade nets covering 1ha each.
He was growing basil, rocket and coriander in the tunnels; baby spinach, radicchio and lettuce under the netting; and mint, rosemary and parsley on open lands. The fact that Jomajoco’s packhouse, which Johann kindly let him use, was certified by Global Gap meant that Jimmy was in a position to supply retail giants such as Woolworths and Pick n Pay. So when Jimmy needed funds to expand his business further, Johann, who was a Woolworths supplier, felt it was time to introduce him to Woolworths and In2Foods.
PARTNERING WITH GIANTS
To help him grow, Jimmy was enrolled with Woolworths’ supplier and enterprise development programme and put in partnership with In2Foods, a retailer that supplies food products to local and international hotels, restaurants, food manufacturers and catering companies. These developments translated into a cash injection of about R8.5m for Jimmy, with Woolworths providing a R4.5m loan and In2Foods investing an additional R4 million.
The funds made it possible to put up a 1ha Multispan greenhouse structure where baby spinach could be grown throughout the year. “This structure helped protect the plants from the harsh cold winters and excessive rain and hail in summer,” explains Jimmy. The remainder of the Woolworths loan went into additional shade netting and infrastructure development, whereas the money from In2Foods was used for machinery, a tractor and a truck.
With this support, Jimmy managed to expand his production to 16ha and create 42 permanent jobs and 30 seasonal jobs. “We have expanded our product line to eight types of herbs and 10 vegetables. We now have 8ha of open land and 8ha under plastic and net,” he says.
As the farm grew into a larger and more sophisticated operation, Jimmy’s daughter, Lerato, who started off helping out as a seasonal worker while she was studying for a BA Agriculture degree at the University of the Free State, took over daily operations.
“I had convinced Lerato to study and join the industry because the farm is already there and also, I’m aging. And she is young and female – she can be an example to aspiring females out there,” Jimmy explains excitedly. “I used to operate alone in the past, doing everything, but now with an extra pair of qualified hands we can catapult the farm to another level.”
Getting to that point had been a winding road for Lerato too. She says she’d had ideas of her own when she finished high school.
“I went to the University of the Free State with the hopes of becoming a lawyer, but a few months into my degree I opted to change over to agriculture. My father was already in his fifties and my sister is an architect, so I thought it would be ideal to go into agriculture. My father had already made such a success of the business, but there was no succession plan in place. That is when I took it upon myself to change over,” she says.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
According to Lerato, quality is especially important in vegetable and herb production. “Consumers buy with their eyes, so having a good-quality product helps. This also attracts new clients because everyone prefers having quality products on their shelves or in their kitchen,” she explains.
“Ours is an all-year production and our lettuce takes about six weeks from seedling to maturity, whereas something like cabbage can take up to 14 weeks to mature. The rest of our product cycles fall in between the six- and 14-week period,” explains Lerato.
She says herbs must be of great quality to give more flavour and are mostly for high-end customers. “We usually use the client’s specifications to determine the right time to harvest, because some clients prefer the younger leaves. In those cases we sometimes harvest before the product is fully mature, therefore anything from four to eight weeks can be ready for the market.”
The infrastructure they developed assists in ensuring that they are in production all year round but, despite that, the temperature still plays a major role in the decision when to plant certain crops. “Because we work with nature, we are forced to adjust our product choices accordingly,” Lerato explains.
“For example, we are in a frost-prone area and basil will not thrive under such conditions. It is extremely sensitive to cold and can even turn black when it’s too cold, hence we only grow basil for eight months of the year.” During the cold months, they increase their cabbage production instead because cabbage can withstand temperatures as low as -10˚C.
Other herbs such as coriander, Italian parsley and rocket can be grown all year round, says Lerato.
“The trick will be to buy the correct seed variety because the summer and winter varieties differ. Also, keeping the product free of weeds and pests is the best way to optimise returns.” This is because a crop needs the maximum amount of sunlight to grow optimally, and being surrounded by weeds hinders its growth.
“Following a good fertiliser programme also contributes to maximum returns,” she adds, “as does the regular use of pesticides and fungicides.”
They used to have a problem with their cauliflower turning beige when it is exposed to the sun rather than the desired pearly white.
“As I said, when something doesn’t look good people don’t buy. So to prevent sunburn we started tying the cauliflower leaves together with an elastic, like you would tie a ponytail, once the heads start forming. This has proved to be the best way to keep it white,” Lerato chuckles.
Besides quality, Lerato says, consistency sets them apart and keeps them relevant. She says many farmers lose clients because they are unable to meet their demands. “Drawing up a growing programme helps, so you are able to have product available all year round.”
Despite her hard work and the passion she has demonstrated, Lerato says, people are usually surprised when she introduces herself as a farmer, because the industry remains male-dominated.
“I’m not really bothered but it can get frustrating at times. I am either treated with kid gloves or blatantly looked over. However, I don’t lose sleep over it because I know where I’m headed. I think people need to get their heads out of the clouds because there are many females who are blooming in the industry and soon it will be one of the fields dominated by women.”
Jimmy has been mentoring and developing emerging farmers and students for many years now, but grooming his daughter has been most fulfilling. He says teaming up with Lerato has rejuvenated his spirit even when he was having a hard time with his partners.
“We were not financed by banks but went into strategic partnerships with corporates by offering them shares in the businesses. That on its own brings serious challenges,” explains Jimmy. However, working with Lerato has brought about some exciting new ventures.
“We want to do the whole value chain and even branch out to implements, machinery and equipment,” says Jimmy.
Lerato is up for any challenge, she says, because gets her resilience from her dad. “I want to show people that farming doesn’t have to be boring,” she says.
“As a young person, you can still live your life while running a farm. You can be beautiful, wear your make-up and your heels over the weekend and get down and dirty during the week. This will be an important lesson for young people who want to enter the industry. This will show them agriculture is not a trap.”