Brothers find niche with brewery and ecotourism

Having limited access to water in a traditional fruit and vineyard producing region did not stop Adrian Robinson and his brother, Phillip, from realising their farming dream. They spoke to Glenneis Kriel about how they broke out of the cost-price squeeze.

Brothers find niche with brewery and ecotourism
The farm has 14ha under wine grapes, 10ha of plums and 2ha of nectarines, peaches and olives respectively.
Photo: Supplied
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Adrian Robinson and his brother, Phillip, did not know what they were getting themselves into 23 years ago when they decided over a glass of red wine in a jacuzzi to buy a 1 800ha farm in the Nuy Valley, near Robertson in the Western Cape.

Their initial idea was to start an ecotourism venture, but this had to be placed on hold due to the huge costs involved.

Adrian Robinson and his wife, Jackie, are proof that you don‘t need a farming background to be a successful farmer.

“My wife, Jackie, and I were teacher-turned bakers, while Phillip is an accountant. We did not know it took so much time and money to run a farm, never mind start an ecotourism business. Moving from having a regular income to only getting paid once a year was also a huge shock,” Adrian explains.

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So, they found themselves focusing on the production of export fruit from the farm’s existing area under production.

Today, they have 14ha of wine grapes, 10ha of plums, and 2ha of nectarines, peaches and olives, respectively. Having no farming background, it took them time to learn the ropes.

“We had the basics under control, and started getting decent tonnages after a couple of years. The challenge with farming, however, is that each season is different, and each cultivar has its own unique requirements.”

Crops focus

“You constantly need to adapt production practices in response to these,” he says.

To survive the cost crunch, they realised they had to either go bigger, focus on more intensive crops, such as berries, or do things differently.

Going bigger was not an option, as the farm’s water source only has enough water to irrigate 40ha of land.

They investigated the possibility of getting water from the Breede River, but that would have required a black economic partner, a kilometre-long pipeline that would have cost about R1 million and a dam that would have added R4 million to the project.

“It did not make financial sense. We were already struggling to make ends meet. We could not afford another partner, and the additional water would have only added another 20ha under irrigation,” Adrian adds.

Saggy stone

In 2010, the brothers decided to open a craft brewery and restaurant. The decision was driven by the growing trend of microbreweries that Phillip saw during a trip to the West Australian Margaret River region, which was a similar wine valley to the Robertson Valley.

“It made sense, because we had been brewing our own beer since varsity and had baking experience. We experimented with different recipes until we found a winner,” Adrian says.

There are two business models that work with craft beer, he adds. You go big, which requires trucks, sales reps and is capital intensive.

Or you own your own brew pub/ restaurant, remaining small and craft-centred.

“Having our own restaurant had lower running costs, because we, ourselves, worked in it. On the downside, it was like having a bakery all over again. “The long hours became unsustainable over time,” he says.

After 10 years, they decided to take the plunge and go bigger. The small 200ℓ operation grew into two brewhouses with a capacity to produce 40 000ℓ a month and a storage capacity of 70 000ℓ.

He identifies consistency and the fact that the craft beer industry competes with AB InBev, which accounts for more than 98% of the local beer turnover, as their biggest challenges to success.

“People are willing to pay a premium for craft beer and there are good export opportunities, but that means you need to capture the market by producing an excellent beer and have a good marketing strategy. We have excellent beers, thanks to the high quality of water used from our mountain spring and the use of high-quality ingredients, which are mostly imported from Germany and Belgium,” Adrian says.

Consistency is usually a problem because of temperature fluctuations, which in the Nuy Valley can fluctuate from below 2°C in winter to over 40°C in summer.

Saggy Stone manages this challenge through the use of state-of-the-art cooling systems and by producing a core range, a seasonal range and a growing list of small batch brews to cater for all seasons and tastes.

“South Africa is very much a lager-drinking country, so you have to really be innovative when you make something different,” Adrian says.

One of the ways in which Saggy Stone has been innovative is through their Saggy Stone Bomb Squad Lager project with the two Springbok rugby players Steven Kitshoff and Malcom Marx.

On this, Adrian says: “Marketing is one of the hardest parts of starting your own brewery, so it is great to sell to other brands who do this for you. Steven and Malcolm are excellent brand ambassadors. Through their Instagram page, @bombsquadbeer, they have gained 8 000 followers.”

Saggy Stone beer is available from their original Taproom on the farm, and the other five beers (Robertson, McGregor, Somerset West, Kloof Street and Hamiltons Rugby Club) online via their website and on tap at a few restaurants in the Western Cape, such as the Village Bicycle in Claremont.

The brewery has capacity to produce 40  000 litres a month and can store 70  000 litres.

Ecotourism

Around 2018, again in a hot tub, Philip and Adrian decided it was time to realise their ecotourism dream. They got a quote for game-proof fencing, but the labour alone would have cost R40/m.

So, they decided to do the fencing themselves as a team of about eight, reducing the cost for the fence to R11/m.

On putting up the fence across the farm, over hills and up cliff faces, Adrian says: “I did it once and can tell you, never again. It was a mammoth task, taking us two-and-a-half years to complete the 18km fence.”

Over time, they have also built eight cottages under the name Amandalia Farm to share their piece of paradise. Stocking the farm with game was another big learning curve.

“The biggest lesson was that you have to buy animals from the surrounding areas, as animals bought further afield struggled to adapt to the new climate and veld conditions,” Adrian says.

They stocked the farm with kudu, springbok, eland, zebra and wildebeest, with roughly eight to 10 animals per species.

“We wanted to add mountain zebra, but realised these would be too harsh on the environment,” he says.

He adds that they have a huge problem with prickly pears.

“I made the mistake of trying to eradicate the prickly pears with an electric saw, but this exacerbated the problem.

“Having more zebras would help to get this problem under control because they love to eat it.”

His dream is to get all the farms in the Rooiberg region, up to the R60 route, to farm game with him.

“Creating one big reserve makes a lot of sense, as our agricultural production options are limited because of water availability.

“The cost squeeze has resulted in a lot of consolidation of land over time. Farms have grown bigger and bigger and the number of farmers fewer and fewer.”

Eco-friendly

Besides turning the region into a huge game reserve, Adrian’s other aspiration is to farm even more environmentally friendly.

“The fruit, nuts and wine grapes are all grown in monoculture systems, which turn them into super hosts for certain pests and diseases, so I would like to farm more regeneratively and get some baby doll sheep to graze in the orchards and vineyards to bring diversity and life back to the soil,” he says.

Adrian adds that getting the farm to where it is today has taken a lot of sweat and money.

However, at the end of the day there is nothing that beats the feeling when “you look at your farm and know what a huge part you played in creating what you see”.

Email Adrian Robinson at [email protected].