From farmworker to farmer

27 February 2006

Nestled in the foothills of Mpumalanga’s sweeping escarpment lies Coromandel farm, South Africa’s poster child for land reform. On the brink of collapse four years ago before it was taken over by a workers’ collective, the sprawling 5 800-hectare estate now posts an annual turnover of R3.2-million.

Farmer's Weekly Right now the farm, which is still entirely staffed and managed by former farmworkers, is breaking even. But plummeting milk and maize prices, expanded settlement and potential land claims mean its future is again uncertain.

Catherine Chiloane has lived and worked on Coromandel all her life. In 1997, when its fortunes began to wane, the 39-year-old expected she would have to leave her village and move to Johannesburg or nearby Lydenberg in search of work.

“I was really scared we would lose everything,” she says, sluicing cow dung off the dairy’s concrete apron with a hosepipe. “Thank God it didn’t end up that way.”

By the time the collective had raised enough money to buy the place in 2001, four of its commercial components had already been sold off by the trustees who controlled the deceased owner’s estate. The farm boasted an experimental nursery and bred beef cattle and wool sheep. Its magnificent yearling barn, the only sign of a once-thriving stud-breeding operation, now stands empty.

‘It belongs to us’
What remains of Coromandel is still impressive. There’s a fully equipped dairy with 530 cows, 230 producing 20 litres of milk a day. Twelve drip-irrigated hectares produce blueberries for export – at R1.2-million a year, it’s the farm’s top earner. There’s also 24 hectares of peaches and nectarines – all under netting and microjet irrigation – and thousands of hectares available for pasturage and dryland crop production.

The farm also earns rent from 26 managers’ houses built on Coromandel and leases 500 hectares to neighbouring farmers for maize planting and 1 000 hectares for grazing. In all it employs about 100 permanent staff and up to 50 seasonal workers – although substantially down from 400 full-timers and 200 casuals in Coromandel’s heyday.

Which is why Chiloane can count herself lucky. Downgraded to casual status when the farm started shedding its workforce, the mother of three was recently reinstated full-time as production began to pick up. “I can look after my children now,” she says. “For this I am very grateful.”

Moreover, like the other workers here, Chiloane feels motivated. “We never dreamed of owning this farm. Now we aren’t just ordinary people staying here. It belongs to us.”

The Coromandel farm dam irrigates the 36 hectares of land planted to fruit

The Coromandel farm dam irrigates the 36 hectares of land planted to fruit

She has also benefitted from a deal Coromandel clinched with the local council, which paid R1.8-million to excise 45 hectares from the farm to be used to expand on an existing settlement built by the original owner. The enlarged village will house about 1 500 people – including Coromandel’s farmworkers and their families – now living in settlements dotted around the farm, as well as workers evicted from neighbouring farms.

By accessing housing subsidies, villagers will get title deeds to fully serviced low-cost homes. “I feel like a different person,” says Chiloane. “Before I was living in fear of the future. Now I know I can stay here forever.”

For farming operations, this arrangement has the added advantage of separating living quarters from the orchards and paddocks.

“We’ve got peaches, blueberries and nectarines growing here – and cows wandering around,” explains the farm’s general manager Brian Phokane. “There are just too many temptations. This way it is much easier to control the farmland and minimise the security risk.”

From hobby to model estate
Coromandel has always been an institution in the district. The original holding was bought in 1968 by Edgars tycoon Sydney Press, who turned his weekend hobby into a burgeoning farming enterprise. Over the years he bought up surrounding land and eventually employed more than 20 agricultural experts and farm managers who lived on and ran his model estate.

Their nursery experiments produced cultivars of fruit able to flourish in the harsh mountain climate. They also grew potatoes, yellow and white maize, wheat, sugar beans and soya. Experiments with vines and olive trees were abandoned because of extended frost periods. But the low mean temperature made the region ideal for wool farming.

In the end it was a bitter family feud that sounded the death knell of Sydney Press’s beloved estate. The Press dynasty was one of South Africa’s richest families. At the time of his death in 1997 his personal fortune, made largely from the Edgars group, was reportedly estimated at R100-million.

During a decade-long legal battle prior to his death with his ex-wife Victoria and some of their children, the farm was increasingly neglected. Eventually his children won control of the trust that held the family fortune, and Press had to get their permission to visit his own farm. He died of a heart attack soon afterwards. “That’s what killed him,” says Phokane. “He loved this place.”

Farming in the blood
Phokane surveys the fields he manages with evident pride. He had studied agriculture in high school but ended up becoming a teacher in his hometown of Bushbuckridge because there was little work available on farms. Then, in 1982, he heard through a relative living in the Lydenberg district that Coromandel was hiring staff. Phokane decided to try his luck.

“I’ve always wanted to farm – I have farming in my blood,” he says. “So when this opportunity presented itself I jumped at the chance.”

As luck would have it, Press himself was on the farm the day Phokane arrived. He took a personal interest in the young man who had tertiary education but wanted to do unglamorous farm work.

“He told me he’d try me out if I was willing to start at the bottom, as a farm hand,” recalls Phokane. “I’m not sorry he did. I got to know every part of this farm. At first I worked in the orchards, but Sydney always encouraged us to take training courses, to learn more. Eventually I was supervising the whole farm.”

This hands-on experience combined ability to handle responsibility left Phokane well placed to fight the bitter battle to come. In 2001 the trust controlled by Press’s children living abroad appointed a curator to auction what was left of the farm. The trust apparently wanted R28-million for the entire estate, but the highest bid was R17-million. The community decided to approach the government for a land reform grant to buy it themselves.

“These were desperate times,” says Phokane. “People were being laid off every day. We thought we were going to lose our homes. There was talk of stripping the farm of anything of value. Managers were embroiled in theft – some even went to jail.

“We were going down the drain.”

‘Built with our hands’
In the end the workers collective of 248 beneficiaries only qualified for a R11.5-million land affairs grant. When the Land Bank agreed to loan them another R11-million, they offered the Press family R15.65-million for the land and fixed assets. “It took some negotiating, but eventually the children agreed. We told them this farm was built with our hands – they had to compromise.”

But their struggle had only begun. By then the farm’s operating company had been liquidated, with all movable assets – including the dairy cows and tractors – belonging to the liquidators. The workers offered the liquidators R2.5-million, but this was refused in the belief a higher price could be fetched at auction.

“This was not fair. We had been maintaining these assets and protecting them from being stolen or stripped,” says Phokane. “So I gave them an ultimatum: remove your assets now or let us use them to run the farm, with the first option to purchase.” The liquidators caved in, and in August 2005 paid off their last instalment for the equipment.

‘You are our brothers’
At first local land owners reacted with dismay. “There was hostility,” says Phokane. “They expected if black people were running the farm it would be a failure, with lots of squatters and crime.” The ice was broken when the workers decided to approach their neighbours for advice on planting. “We told them: you are our brothers. Let’s make this work. They saw it in the same light, and now we get along very nicely.”

Now commercial farmers in the district speak proudly of Coromandel as a successful land reform model that should be replicated throughout the country.

“Coromandel demonstrates if it’s done realistically and funded properly, it can work,” says prominent local land owner Eric Johnson. He believes that although effective agri-BEE will require substantial sacrifices from both government and land owners, its success is in everyone’s interest. “When you start looking at your long-term future you need to take into account the interests of the broader community,” he says.

Initial discipline problems, with some members believing ownership meant they could pitch up drunk for work or knock off early, have been overcome. “We have a code of conduct that’s strictly enforced,” says Phokane. “If they step out of line they get nailed.”

Land claims and low prices
But Coromandel’s continued success is far from assured. The district is subject to a massive 30 000-hectare land claim covering 120 farms, including Coromandel, collectively worth R150-million. Landowners say the claim was gazetted on flimsy evidence and now threatens to derail redistribution projects such as Coromandel.

“There was never any real chance of a gazetted claim succeeding here – there were no forced removals,” says trout and cattle farm owner Gerrie van der Merwe. “We will have to fight it in court.”

Chief land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya says the claim had been solidly researched and accuses farmers of only supporting land reform models they can control. “They can control their workers but they can’t control restitution claimants. That’s why they oppose it,” he says.

Phokane is not too concerned about a 10-hectare grazing strip of Coromandel that’s under claim. “We would fight it of course. We’ve worked here all our lives so we should have first right to this land,” he says. “But it’s not really an issue for us.”

In the end the greatest threat to Coromandel, like so many farms in this country, is the steady decline in producer prices while input costs keep climbing. “Our blueberry exports are doing very well, but everything else looks risky right now,” explained Phokane. “This year we will not be planting maize and will run at a loss of R2-million.”

Like their white neighbours, Coromandel’s workers must diversify to stay afloat. So far they have a trial contract with crisps manufacturer Simba for a five-hectare potato patch. If they can produce consistent quality and quantity, their planting contract will be increased.

More soil tests are needed to see which other produce could prove profitable. And the dairy will need an upgrade, especially a processing plant to create yogurts and cheeses, if milk prices stay low.

The farm also has three self-catering lodges in converted stables. With excellent trout fishing, horse riding and hiking available in the farm’s mountains and streams a mere two-and-a-half hours from Johannesburg, there is plenty of room for a larger agri-tourism enterprise.

Coromandel is currently in talks with a Gauteng tourism consortium, but more capital and expertise is needed to make a success of the farming plans.

“With the village being built, the farm must create jobs for everyone. Otherwise people will get hungry and start stealing,” says Phokane. “In the end, if we don’t get the investment and technical assistance we need, all our achievements are at risk.”

Stephan Hofstatter is a specialist land correspondent, contributing to Independent Newspapers, Business Day and Farmer’s Weekly, among others.

Story and photographs strictly copyright Stephan Hofstatter. No reproduction is permitted without prior permission.

This article was originally published in Farmer’s Weekly, South Africa’s premier national agricultural magazine, and is reproduced on SouthAfrica.info with kind permission.