‘It’s my responsibility to produce food’ – Etienne van Wyk

Etienne

Having grown up on renowned South African stud breeder Dries Wiese’s farm, Etienne van Wyk had a distinct advantage. Today he has his own farm and is determined to do groundbreaking work in terms of a government program that gives access to land to previously disadvantaged people with agricultural training.

As a young boy, Etienne van Wyk (30) had his first farming lessons in Dries Wiese’s bakkie on the farm Kasteel near Loxton in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Since then he’s completed a matric certificate at Oakdale Agricultural School, a diploma at Grootfontein Agricultural College, and had eight years’ experience as a farm manager. Now Etienne is taking on the challenge of managing his own farm.

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All that Dries Wiese (left) can say about Etienne van Wyk is: “I am so proud, so terribly proud of this young man. Etienne started “farming” with Dries from a very tender age. Dries quickly saw that Etienne was born to farm. “He is responsible, dedicated and determined. He is also precise. If something has to take place on the 31st then it must take place, not the 30th, or the 1st, but on the 31st. He also has an unbelievable way with animals.

In January 2016, Etienne accepted the keys to Spes Bona, a farm of a little over 3800 ha in the Marydale district of the Northern Cape, where he intends farming with 580 ewes. When he received the first 400 ha he decided to first tackle the farm’s infrastructure.

In terms of the South African government’s plan to give previously disadvantaged people with agricultural training access to land (see below: “New plan for agricultural students”) he will initially rent the farm for five years, after which he can get a long-term contract, with the option to buy.

Initially, Dries Wiese took government officials to task for not asking farmers for their advice about suitable candidates for their land reform program. Shortly afterwards, he received the request: if you know of people that can farm and deserve land, please let us know. He submitted two names, and Etienne was invited for an interview. The rest, as they say, is history.

However, Etienne’s story actually began some 25 years earlier, when Etienne, a bright-eyed farm lad of 4 or 5 years old, accompanied his father, Freddie, to fetch sheep from the camps nearest to Dries’s house. His love of goats, sheep and horses (“any breed you can think of”) began to blossom. Dries noticed this and took the boy under his wing.

“That’s how I grew up, and later started driving around with Mr Wiese in the front of his pick-up truck, opening gates, running around with the sheep, and just generally acting like any young boy. I came and sat here (indicating the sitting room of the Wieses’ house) in the evenings and listened to what he was saying about farming and how he does business.

“I always asked questions. Stupid questions, such as what was the difference between a ram and an ewe. He would explain it to me patiently. Then I would ask again why must we place the rams with the ewes. Then he would explain that was how the rams mate with the ewes to make lambs that we can sell. That is how farming works.

“And so it went on, and later, when I had a little more wisdom, I decided that was actually what I wanted to do, to become a farmer.”

When the time came to go to primary school in Loxton, Etienne wanted no part of it. As far as he was concerned schooling interfered with his farming plans… “I ran away from the school because I wanted to be here. I wanted to be with the animals and come and work. I had a passion for this.”

“I always asked questions. Stupid questions, such as what was the difference between a ram and an ewe. He would explain it to me patiently.

His mother, Annaniet, with the help of Dries and his wife, Maylan, eventually convinced him to go to school. He excelled at primary school – even learning to play chess – but when the time came to go to high school he was destined for one of the local schools that unfortunately already showed signs of rural neglect. Once again Dries stepped in.

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Etienne believe there is a huge difference between a person with college training about farming and someone who grew up with all the skills of farming. Etienne says he has 30 years of farming experience due to all the years he accompanied Dries Wiese of Kasteel Farms near Loxton in his pick-up truck while he drove around and worked on the farm.

“I told him that he would become a tsotsi (gangster); he should rather go to Oakdale Agricultural School. I phoned the headmaster, André Latsky, and asked if there wasn’t some sort of plan we could make,” says Dries.

BECOMING AN OAKDALER

Etienne will never forget the morning he set off for agricultural school.

“My mother and father supported me wholeheartedly. I am also not ashamed to say that at that time my father didn’t earn a salary that could afford schooling at Oakdale. Until today I still don’t know how Mr Latsky and Mr Wiese managed it, and at that time it wasn’t important to me. All that mattered was that I had to get to the agricultural school because I wanted to work on my future.”

It wasn’t long before Etienne was right at home at Oakdale – a member of the cricket, rugby, and the chess team. He took part in athletics and the junior agricultural society, and served on the Akker editorial team. In matric he even achieved first place for the subject ‘agriculture’ (on standard grade) and was sometimes teased for being the favourite his teacher, Fanie Smit.

An Oakdaler through and through, and like the others he had a nickname: Boesman. “I must tell you, it wasn’t a problem for me, even from the first day. I can quickly adapt to any circumstances and I make friends quickly no matter who they are. The right friends though – that’s very important.

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Etienne has completed several stock management courses at Grootfontein Agricultural College.

“There were many times that they tipped my bed over in the hostel, but everybody goes through that. Then I would cry and say I want to go home, but that would only last for five or ten minutes. I never had a problem with the white kids that would say hurtful things about me.

“We all know there are some children who think they are very funny – I call it funny – and they called me names that I would rather they didn’t, but I didn’t let that bother me. I think all the things that happened made me into the person I am today.”

It is especially his excellent teachers, and most of all Fanie, who he remembers fondly. “He taught us agriculture and economics and inspired me a lot. Every day when I came to class he would say to me: ‘You are a farmer, you have a head for business. You must follow this course.’”

“When I finished school, I decided that I wanted to be one of the farmers that ensure there is food on the supermarket shelves. The money was less important, it is more that I wanted to be part of those producers. It is still my vision. When I get up I must think first of myself and my family, and then I must think of the people out there who need food. I have that responsibility.

Every day when I came to class he would say to me: ‘You are a farmer, you have a head for business. You must follow this course.’

COLLEGE BURSARIES

Etienne received a string of bursaries – one from Mohair South Africa, one from Standard Bank, and also one from the Department of Agriculture. Dries also assisted until he had completed his second year. “I didn’t want to do my third year, but rather come to the farm and work. My passion – farming – was already covered by the second year.”

Just like at agricultural school, Etienne was popular at Grootfontein. This time his nickname was Shortie. “I had lots of friends. Even the third-year students were fond of me. It was great there. I learnt a lot and did various courses, especially in the sheep and goat section.

“I actually did very well at college and there were a bunch of achievments that I feel good about, such as the senior Dorper course, the junior Boer Goat course and the Drakensberger course. I also earned my ‘Springbokkop’, which is their wool classing course.”

BOSS OF A BIG FARM

After Grootfontein, Etienne came to Kasteel as foreman, but within 11 months Dries appointed him farm manager at Bulberg, in the Vosburg district. Etienne was fully in charge of this 17 100 ha farm for about seven years, farming Merinos, Boer Goats, and cattle. “He was responsible for all his own hiring and firing, and even had to sort out the camp systems and the matings,” says Dries.

A CHANCE OF A LIFETIME

And then came the offer to farm at Spes Bona. The first thing he did upon arrival at the farm was to inspect the fences and drink in the farm’s atmosphere. “Now it honestly feels like I have lived here for years.” Etienne realised that it was a huge opportunity for him. “I immediately said yes, if I get a chance in life then I will take it.

“This is the first time that they have recommended a student and given him land to farm. So I am actually here to pave the way for those who follow. If I do well in the next five years then I have opened doors for others so that they can repeat this project.”

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At the farm Bulberg Etienne learnt that the grazing patterns of sheep and goats complement each other.

The government program helps him with finances, small stock, a Toyota Hilux 2.5 pick-up truck and infrastructure.

“I registered my own farm under the name JE van Wyk Farms. I also have an accountant and a mentor that supervise me and come out weekly. I look forward to the challenges, but can’t predict how everything will turn out. I have faith and trust that I will make it.”

Etienne is planning to farm with cross-bred Dorper-Van Rooy ewes and has already purchased a couple of rams from Dries.

So I am actually here to pave the way for those who follow. If I do well in the next five years then I have opened doors for others so that they can repeat this project.

“I had a few at Bulberg, and saw there that they are good ewes that thrive in both green and dry conditions. If there are lambs, they also do well without feed, and they last a bit longer in the drought. They are fertile, they mate easily, and have good maternal and milk attributes and they are hardy. They have been bred to survive in this Karoo of ours.”

Etienne’s plans for the farm are already underway.

“I know I am going farm in the same way as I did at Kasteel. I will have six matings per year and lamb six times per year. That will ensure that I have lambs every month to sell. That will keep my cashflow looking healthy, but I will also have a smaller group of ewes that will lamb every second month. This requires much less labour. I will immediately determine which are the poorer ewes and which are the infertile rams.

“I can also keep the jackels in check more effectively and will have better control.

“I place a lot of emphasis on the efficient use of my veld. At Bulberg I had a commercial Boer Goat herd, and learnt that a goat and a sheep do not compete with each other, each one utilises the veld in a different manner and have differing grazing patterns. The goat browses from shrubs and bushes and sheep graze at ground level. Therefore, there is no bush encroachment or grasses that get too tall.

“At Spes Bona I am going to have camps that will rest for a month, camps that will rest for two months, and camps that will rest for three months. There will alo be camps that will be grazed for one, two and four months.

EXPERIENCE IS IMPORTANT

It is not just the farming principles that he learnt at Kasteel but also the “softer” skills that give him the edge. “I am a fast person. I like speed, I like the fast lane, because that is how I grew up. Mr Wiese is a fast man and a perfectionist. For him, things must happen promptly. Unfortunately, I have grown up with this and now I am exactly the same.”

“I am 30 years old and have spent all of those 30 years here with Mr Wiese, so I have 30 years of knowledge. From the moment I started thinking and understanding, I was here. It helped me a lot, and now I am applying this experience at Spes Bona. You have to have a background in farming. We are not talking about school or college here, you need a solid, practical farming background.

“There is a huge difference between someone who sits in a house in town and someone who has spent their whole life farming, or lived on a farm. There are so many practical tips that you have to apply in farming that the town person will not always be aware of. For example, I have many solutions for a blocked pipeline, or how to dose a lot of sheep in a kraal, or how to split the lambs from the ewes.”

This is why he believes in a land reform model where people with experience and knowledge can benefit.

There is a huge difference between someone who sits in a house in town and someone who has spent their whole life farming, or lived on a farm

“They can give land to everyone, but in the end we need people who want to be part of those who wish to farm so that there is food available on the supermarket shelves. This is the main reason why we have to be successful. I really want them to consider people who have a farming background.”

Despite his experience and extensive knowledge, Etienne still desires to learn more from his new mentor, Gavin Benderis, a previous owner of Spes Bona.

“I see myself as an upcoming farmer once again. I really want to rise to be a commercial farmer. I am prepared to learn and I am flexible.

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Etienne grew up on the farm belonging to Dries Wiese, a renowned sheep breeder who has previously been crowned Sheep Farmer of the Year. PHOTO: SUPPLIED.

Etienne believes that with Dries at his side he can weather any storm that afflicts his life, but he sees Gavin’s mentorship as a new opportunity in his life. “I feel that the Lord has parted my way with Mr Wiese, on whom I heavily rely, so that He can see what I am truly capable of in my life. I believe there are more big challenges waiting for me in my life, and for this reason I must learn from someone else for five years. I am not going to try and be too clever.”

And in 30 years’ time he hopes to look back on a good farming career with “a respectable” farm full of all the small livestock breeds that he loves so much: Dorper, Boer Goats and Merino. “A little bit of everything. I strive to be in Mr Wiese’s shoes one day.”

ENQUIRIES: Etienne van Wyk, cell 002783 998 2522

New plan for agricultural students

Etienne van Wyk was the first farmer in the Northern Cape to get a chance to run his own farm in terms of the new South African government plan.

Eric Jantjies of the Northern Cape Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development in Kimberly is the project manager of the recapitilisation and development plan in the Northern Cape. He says that the plan is focused on giving black farmers access to land but they must have completed agricultural studies, be it a national diploma or a degree.

“The department purchases the farm and initially remains the owner of the farm. We then advertise in the newspapers that we are looking for people who have completed agricultural studies and are out of work or are working on a farm but wish to start their own farming enterprise.”

The applicants must send in their CVs and proof of a qualification. Before a thourough interview is carried out with each applicant, they are taken to the farm to ensure that they are really willing to farm there.

During the interview the applicants are asked about 20 questions and they get points for their answers. “We then recommend the applicant with the highest marks to our national office in Pretoria, who will then approve him,” says Eric.

The government then signs an initial five-year contract with the successful applicant. If he makes a success of that, then a further 20-year contract with an option to purchase is entered. If the 20-year time period expires, then there is a 30-year contract on the table.

“So we initially remain the owner of the land as we have learnt from our mistakes. In the past people have been placed on the land, but instead of farming they fought with each other and made trouble. So now we first give a rental contract to see if the people do well.”

The rental income amounts to a percentage of the farm’s profit.

“We appoint a mentor to guide the farmer. As project manager, I also visit the farm every month to see what he is doing. We review the books and our reports to decide whether he will get a second contract.”

The government also assists with stock, vehicles, and infrastructure. In Etienne’s case they have also built a house.

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