In the family business

Two generations of Kotzés farm more than a dozen different lines on their historic Sandveld farm between Velddrif and Hopefield. For them, the pros far outweigh the cons of farming with the family. Keri Harvey reports.

In the family business
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Langrietvlei is a 4 000ha farm in the semi-arid Sandveld that has belonged to the Kotzé family since the early 1700s.  Francois and Fiona Kotzé have farmed here for more than 50 years, joined for the past 20 years by two of their five sons: Jurgen and Reuben. They all live on the farm with their families. Since the sons joined the family business, three farms have been added to the original land and the Kotzés have built an enterprise inspiring in its diversity.

Jurgen and Reuben’s involvement with farming goes back to their childhood. Reuben remembers filling in cow registrations from the age of 10. Langrietvlei has always been a dairy and grain farm, and Reuben took over the Guernsey dairy from his father in 1993. Their Guernsey stud is highly respected in South Africa and Reuben is a director of the World Guernsey Federation.

Jurgen is responsible for beef cattle and sheep, and is in charge of planting wheat, oats, barley and lupins and of making silage. Paralysed for a year at 24 after a rugby accident, Jurgen made a fortunate recovery and can again walk, drive and horseride. He helps Fiona harvest honey and waterblommetjies, which grow in the vleis of the Berg River that runs through the farm. Francois still casts an eye over the cattle, sheep and pigs and runs the chickens, turkeys and free-range eggs. “And I pay the bills,” he adds.

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The Kotze family – from left, Jurgen, Reuben, Fiona and Francois.

“Lots of people are curious about what happens on this farm,” says Jurgen with a smile, “because there is so much going on. It’s successful because everything is interlinked. If we took one thing out of the equation it wouldn’t work as well.” The Sandveld, unlike the nearby Swartland, is classified as marginal farm land with very sandy soils. In the fertile soils of the Swartland, the wheat yield is 4t/ha while maximum yield on Langrietvlei is 1,6t/ ha. The annual average rainfall is 480mm and the Sandveld has a carrying capacity of 1MLU per 25ha.

Because of the marginal conditions, mixed farming has always been a matter of necessity at Langrietvlei. Reuben admits that with the many farming disciplines being practised simultaneously, there is not much downtime. “There is always something going on but it works well because different activities peak at different times. Dairy is all year, honey is busy from October to April, wheat is in November, waterblommetjies are in winter, and sheep, beef and pigs are all year. Yes, it’s a madhouse, but it works.”

Vegetables are also grown, along with fruit – oranges, lemons, guavas, pomegranates and quinces. Prickly pears are harvested as well, and all the fruit and vegetables are sold in the Kotzés’ Golden Guernsey A2 shops in Vredenburg and Saldanha. A2 is the protein in Guernsey milk that is tolerated by most lactose-intolerant people.

Reuben’s range of dairy products, from fresh milk and flavoured yoghurts to feta and mozzarella, are sold in the A2 outlets. Juices and free-range eggs are supplied and Fiona stocks the shop with honey, waterblommetjies and home-made biscuits. Fiona delivers honey twice a week to various Pick n Pay outlets in Cape Town, and previously won runner-up in the Sarie Old Mutual Small Business Women of the Year award.

Vital links
“All that we do is connected like a chain,” says Reuben. “We have free-range chickens because they help to control the flies around the dairy, and they produce eggs so we can sell free-range eggs in the shop. Whey from the cheese making at the dairy feeds the pigs. The wild pigs on the farm thin out the waterblommetjie bulbs – so even they have a job in the chain. Everything is interlinked, but nothing is so big that it gets out of control.”

Reuben with his dog Lady and cows from his Guernsey herd. Concentrates are fed during the summer with the herd using more grazing during the winter.

Family dynamics
“We are all involved with one another,” says Reuben, “because we share staff and vehicles. We eat lunch together every day around the big dining room table in Langrietvlei house and talk farming – often about labour and who will work where in the afternoon.” According to Reuben, labour is allocated to wherever it is needed and the Langrietvlei staff tend to be multi-skilled. ”When we employ staff they need to be able to do everything – from harvesting honey to catching a pig. It’s never boring here.”

“Yes, we do disagree at times,” says Francois, “but it’s important that we say what we want to, and then it’s over. There is no time for grudges and we never go to bed angry.” Reuben adds that you have to be willing to compromise when farming together, and Jurgen says tolerance is essential. Fiona draws up a daily roster for herself with every half hour accounted for, to help manage her hectic schedule.

This includes running two self-catering chalets on the farm, volunteer work, managing the farm’s books and finances, and running the annual Hopefield Fynbos Show. Her working day starts at 6am and ends at 6pm, and after that she often does computer work, sometimes until midnight. Francois jokes, “We don’t even know how much we owe, only Fiona does.”

“If you farm alone, you have your own ideas,” says Reuben, “but farming with three other people means lots of input and it really helps. Things are better thought through than when you were farming alone. Of course you have to be big enough to admit when you are wrong. Actually, the way we are farming is not unusual; it’s common practice in the US with even the uncles and nephews involved in family farms.”

Fiona markets 14 different kinds of fynbos honey and sees honey as a profitable line with low inputs.

Cross subsidising
“What is most profitable at any time depends mostly on the rainfall,” comments Reuben. “The dairy is stable and provides a constant cash flow. Good rain favours the wheat harvest and provides an abundance of flowers for the bees who then produce more honey of a better quality. Beef and lamb depends on market prices, no matter what, but things are never all good or all bad at the same time.”

Fiona says honey pays for the farm’s electricity and fertiliser. “It’s probably the most consistently profitable line, because it costs little to produce and everything is used. Even the wax cappings from honeycombs are resold as wax blocks for foundation sheets for new hives or for furniture wax.”

Labour is drawn from the general pool and there are no specialist operators for the bee hives. “The bakkie I use for deliveries to Cape Town twice a week brings back milk bottles, yoghurt cultures or juice bases needed for what we produce for our shops.”  The vehicle is shared between other farming activities for the rest of the week, so staff and equipment dovetails across the different lines farmed.

There’s a list of challenges, says Jurgen, including unreliable labour and the high cost of diesel and water. “The cost of electricity is going to kill farming. We don’t plant potatoes anymore because it costs R500/day to run the centre pivot on 12ha of potatoes – that’s just the electricity cost, not the water, fertiliser, labour or anything else. Then you get R20 for a bag of potatoes.”

Jurgen says that paying the overheads is his biggest challenge. For Reuben the biggest challenge is keeping the balance to ensure as many products as possible are available in his shops. “I need to keep sufficient quantities of milk back to make the mozzarella and feta we sell, and have enough to supply fresh milk to my clients. In summer we feed the cows more concentrates and milk production goes up; on winter grazing they produce less milk, but at a lower cost – so it’s a balancing game all the time.

“Of course we would like to produce fresh farm eggs year-round, but at certain times of the year there are very few eggs because the chickens are moulting. Unfortunately consumers don’t always understand when there isn’t stock.” Reuben would like to develop the farm further and maintain a smooth operation. “I work on staying positive because farming is much harder than it was 10 years ago.”

The future
Both Jurgen and Reuben have young sons who may become the 9th generation of Kotzés to farm Langrietvlei. “We have to adapt, but sometimes it feels like we are going backwards. I think we will eventually need to farm in even bigger, extended families, like they do in America,” says Reuben. Jurgen adds: “I still wouldn’t swop this life. For me, the freedom of living here and working outside in the sunshine just can’t be matched. I was born to farm.” It’s clear the same goes for the rest of the Kotzé family too. 

Contact the Kotzés on 022 783 0856.