From shepherd’s son to top farmer

Niklaas Slinger, the Agricultural Writers Emerging Farmer of the Year, never went to school. He was a farmworker for the Theron family for 20 years, and when Jan Theron died, Niklaas helped his widow run the farm. When Jan’s son JP grew up he helped Niklaas buy his own farm, where he won through to become one of SA’s top 20 rooibos producers.

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The road from Clanwilliam over the Nardouwberg mountain to De Lille rooibos farm is like 53-year-old Niklaas Slinger’s road to success. It’s long and steep, but the scenery is breathtaking. Niklaas grew up in this mostly untamed part of the Western Cape, where his father worked as a shepherd on local farms.

After working as a farmworker for 20 years, Niklaas managed to buy his own farm in 1992. In 2009 the South African Rooibos Tea Council named him one of the country’s top 20 rooibos producers. In 2010, Agricultural Writers South Africa named him the National South African Emerging Farmer of the Year.

Farmworker to farmer
“I was one of 17 children. We were very poor and the farms we lived on were far away from schools, so I never learnt to read or write,” says Niklaas. When he was a child, his father taught him about animals.

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And by working on sheep, cattle and rooibos farms, he learnt the practical side of farming. In 1972, when Niklaas was 15, he worked on Jan Theron’s farm Vondeling. Some years later, Jan passed away. Jan’s son JP was only six years old, and Niklaas and Jan’s wife Annie had to run the farm. As JP grew up, a strong bond developed between him and Niklaas.

“In 1992, neighbouring farm De Lille was for sale, and I saw it as my opportunity to start farming for myself,” recalls Niklaas. “The only problem was I didn’t have the money to buy it.” He approached JP, who helped him get financing from the department of agriculture. JP also helped Niklaas buy a bakkie and provided additional financing.  “I’m very grateful for everything the Therons, who are now my neighbours, have done for me,” says Niklaas. “I don’t know how I would’ve managed to get to where I am today without their support.”

Rooibos production
The farm was originally 2 066ha, but in 2010, Niklaas sold 50ha to another farmer to raise the money to pay off what he still owed on it. “When I bought the farm, there was only 30ha of rooibos planted. Now I have 300ha of rainfed rooibos, yielding between 200kg/ha and 500kg/ha. My previous total yield was 80t for the local and export market,” he says. Niklaas could grow rooibos on between 500ha and 800ha on the farm, but several factors are holding him back, such as the oversupply in the rooibos market this year, which drove prices down and saw many rooibos farmers produce less.

However, the SA Rooibos Tea Council predicts a strong growth in demand that would see the market recover in 2011. Most of the rooibos is harvested from January to March, but weather permitting, harvesting can continue until early May. After that it gets too cold for the harvested tea to dry. Niklaas explains that production decreases in plants older than five years. He therefore replaces up to 100ha of rooibos annually, depending on yield.

Production runs on a seven-year rotation. A piece of land is under rooibos for five years, after which the bushes are slashed down and disced into the soil. Niklaas then plants oats for one year to break the cycle of soil-borne diseases and produce feed for his Dorper sheep. He prefers to leave the land fallow for one year before planting rooibos again.
“I let the sheep graze on the oat stubble after harvesting,” he adds.  For the past two years, Niklaas has used no chemical spray and no fertiliser on the rooibos. For the oats he applies chicken manure at planting. “I don’t have my own infrastructure for drying tea, so I use JP’s facilities,” he explains. “Here we dry tea for two other farmers, and produce about 220t of dry tea every year.”

Diversification into livestock
Not all the land on his farm is suitable for rooibos production. Niklaas farms with Dorper sheep to use some of the more marginal areas economically. He has around 250 ewes and aims to maintain the flock at this level. “The ewes lamb once a year – half of the flock in May and the other half in June. We sell the lambs at four months in early October when there’s a shortage of natural pasture,” he explains.

This year his lambing percentage was 100%. He selects 50 ewe lambs to replace culled ewes, and the other lambs are marketed to be slaughtered. “When rooibos and sheep prices started to fall, I decided I needed to diversify further, and in 2009 I bought shares in JP’s ostrich operation,” says Niklaas. The ostriches are sold to an abattoir in Moorreesburg.

Facing future challenges
“I come from a background where money alone can’t solve problems,” explains Niklaas. “This taught me to be resourceful and to think creatively when facing problems, or fixing things on the farm. Growing up poor also taught me to get by on very little, giving me the self-discipline I needed to save money to pay off my debt.” Now that he’s paid off the farm, he plans to start saving towards buying machinery that will increase the farm’s productivity and profitability. “I’d also like to put up my own drying and storage facilities,” he adds.

Niklaas, who also serves as a lay preacher in his community, is excited about his son Andries becoming more involved with the management of the farm in the near future. “All my children finished high school. Andries has a better formal education than I have, and while I can teach him the practicalities of farming, I think he’ll have some valuable management ideas,” he says. Contact Niklaas Slinger on 083 656 7612.