Fredalette Uys talks to Carole Kirkwood-Pretorius who has swapped her city life for farm life with no regrets. Carole keeps her farming business going in hard times by combining a talent for business with shrewd management skills and a diverse, multi-layered, enterprise mix.
Silence blankets the air above the flat, rocky terrain of the semi-arid Tankwa Karoo in the Western Cape. Small, hardy shrubs scramble across the landscape to gain a foothold on life.
In this extreme environment, on the farm Capre-Avontuur, far from the remotest possibility of lush, green pastures and verdant valleys, we visit Carole Kirkwood-Pretorius a Damara sheep and dairy goat farmer.
The product of an urban upbringing, Carole worked in the pharmacology industry before she made the transition to country life and became immersed in farming. Today, she calls herself a “Karoo kind” (child of the Karoo). Resilient and bold in her approach, Carole has built up a noteworthy farming operation using diverse strategies and relevant management techniques.
SHIFTING THE FARMING PARADIGM
Livestock farmers in the region traditionally farm Merino or Dorper sheep but Carole set her heart on the indigenous, smaller-framed Damara sheep when she started her farming operations in 2008.
“The Damara sheep works for me. These animals thrive on the natural vegetation which gives the meat that hallmark “Karoobossie” (Karoo scrub) taste. Karoo lamb is valued for its succulence and the herb-like flavour of the meat.
High worth genetics are important to Carole and she bought her foundation flock from Damara stud farmer Deon Vlok, of Calvinia in the Northern Cape Province.
“The genetics was extremely good and I bought the animals with a guarantee.”
She sells the sheep for meat, but must travel 200 km to Calvinia to get a good price of R70/kg, where she sells the meat under the Karoo lamb certification system. The current market price in her home town is only about R29/kg.
To boost her profit margins she started hand-rearing lambs to sell as pets and breeding animals to other Damara breeders.
“A wild Damara ram is nobodies’ friend. Hand-rearing familiarises them with humans and makes them easier to handle. These lambs sell at the same price as adult animals.” She sells them on the online classified website, Gumtree.
Hand-rearing lambs adds a third lambing season to a two-year cycle.
The Damara sheep is Carole’s main enterprise but she has added some diversity into her enterprise mix to keep her income steady. Value-adding to mutton and lamb, she processes meat into mince, meat packs, marinated meats and cured meat, which she sells to informal markets in Cape Town.
In season, she markets about 500 winter-raised barn broiler chickens a week.
She keeps milk sheep and a flock of British Alpine dairy goats and makes her own hard cheese, feta and buttermilk which is sold alongside farm-grown and processed fig products under her trademark at farm stalls in the Western Cape.
Ahead of the festive season, Carole buys in the meatier Merino and Dorper sheep and fattens them in feeding camps. When the price goes up she sells the fattened sheep to catch the Christmas market and its higher prices.
DEALING WITH DROUGHT
The prolonged three-year drought has hammered the veld and led to a serious deterioration in the quantity and quality of available forage.
“The drought has been devastating, the natural vegetation can’t develop without rain and there is no protein or sustenance in the vegetation,” Carole explains. Sheep have died on the range and a number had to be sold to buy in feed.
Carole sold 62 of her Saanen dairy goats and kept a core flock of only 10 ewes. She also sold sheep at low prices. From the sales of stock, she raised money to buy hay and supplements to keep the remaining animals going. As every stock farmer knows, buying in feed is a path to bankruptcy. It is a short-term strategy to save animals only.
She plans to rebuild her flock when the veld recovers after the first rains.
Unable to plant cash crops, Carole began to convert empty labourer’s cottages on the farm into guest houses. She plans to rent them out on long- term leases as a breakaway option for city families. “I brought in lifestyle farming and now I can get a regular income with long term leases.”
Carole makes decisions based on sound financial principles and does not let emotions get in the way. “My ground rules are to look at the markets and follow what is suitable for the area. If an enterprise doesn’t work I stop doing it and look at the next option,” she explains.
She uses an accounting software package to draw up financial statements, budget projections and yearly financial plans.
“I believe in having a financial and management plan for the year ahead. The one enterprise complements the other and if your financials don’t tally up with what you are doing you might as well close the farm.”
Carole’s hard work and efforts have not gone unnoticed and in 2013 she was crowned awarded the female small entrepreneur farmer in the agricultural sector by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture.
“Winning this award gave a tap on the shoulder. It tells me that I am headed in the right direction.
“I worked very hard and the award gave my confidence a boost. It also helped me to apply myself even further to my farming operation.”
In 2016 Carole was nominated by the department for training in China in agri-processing and exports. The training is funded by China Aid.
“When I got back I had a fresh look at my farm. Before that I only wanted to farm, but now I see it as a business that must make a profit.”
And would she go back to city life?
“Although I am farming against the odds in the semi-arid region, I would rather work my fingers to the bone than go back to the stresses of budgets, targets and money.”