In early 2004 Karen Moerdyk and her husband Leedert settled on a small farm not far from East London with little idea of what to do. Now Karen has successfully reinvented the dated concept of a country market into a successful business – and an alternative outlet for agricultural produce. Mike Burgess reports.
For Karen Moerdyk, Leaving three good businesses in Stellenbosch and moving to a 30ha family farm, Sunnyside, in East London was a leap of faith. Her mother Lynne Esterhuizen, a direct descendent of the 1850 German settler Salzwedel family, inherited the land and encouraged Karen to move back to the Eastern Cape.
The Salzwedels, like other German settlers, historically produced vegetables on their small farms for the traditional German markets. Today, however, market demands have forced adaptation and farming is dominated by volume tunnel production, most notably of tomatoes.
Intensive capital investment was something the Moerdyks wanted to avoid. ‘’We believe in no debt, it gives you a fighting chance,’’ says Karen. ‘’After an overseas trip we moved to East London, sorted and cleaned up the farm and strategised about what we might do. Everybody thought we were crazy.’’ One night Karen had a dream about a market like the ones where her ancestors used to sell their produce. She was convinced the idea could become a viable business opportunity. The Moerdyks quickly decided to start the market small and grow it slowly by reinvesting their profits. Husband Leedert’s irrigation business, relocated from Stellenbosch, would provide cash flow.
The value of a traditional market ’’My vision for the market has always been about getting back to basics – eating good food and keeping the family together,” Karen explains. “This is the backbone of society.” The Moerdyks revamped the farm shed and sourced produce from surrounding farmers, such as Karen’s uncle Colin Salzwedel, well-known in the area for his strawberries and open-field vegetables.
The first market was a complete sell-out. Karen, the consummate perfectionist describes it as a disaster. “was embarrassed when by 9am there was nothing left to buy and the customers kept on coming,” she remembers. “I actually went up to my room and had a good cry. I didn’t know what to do.” By the next week Karen had made considerable improvements including more supplies and more stallholders at what was now named Lavender Blue Farmers’ Country Market. The response was fantastic. Karen had to start a Friday market to ensure all the stallholders could sell their wares.
Soon the market was running from Tuesday to Sunday and on most holidays. It quickly became a popular destination, justifying the opening of a now-thriving restaurant that serves dishes made from the produce for sale. The market is supported by an enthusiastic middle- to upper-class clientele, who’ve benefited from the property boom and significant foreign investment in the East London area. In fact, the market’s success demonstrates that most customers find themselves in one of the Eastern Cape’s most impressive economic booms ever.
Diversifying the business
Karen explains that the core principle behind the Lavender Blue concept was to create opportunities for other people. The concept is simple and benefits the consumer and the seller. “At Lavender you get to sell your produce at a small fee based on a percentage of your stall’s profits, cutting out the middleman,” Karen explains. “Lavender Blue is about promoting small business.
Those who don’t have a big shop have time to produce varied products.’’ Marta Joubert, formerly a butcher’s wife from Beaufort West, now sells her secret recipes at the market. ‘’I worked in a butcher shop in the Karoo for 30 years, until my husband died, then I moved closer to my daughter and now I order meat from the abattoir, work it and sell my own products,’’ she explains.
The next stall is manned by ex-Hanover farmer Dennis Hofart who, with his wife Athlie, produces an array of jams and pickled and canned products from traditional recipes. ‘’We source the best produce and our recipes are unique,’’ he assures me.
Vera Ekron serves as healthy competition across the hall. ’’The country market idea has been very successful,’’ she says. At a particularly busy stall, Petra Weingarten offers organic and traditional German bread. ‘’It’s my third year now. I used to sell 15 loaves a week but now sell between 70 and 100 loaves,‘’ she explains.
Other stall holders include Andries and Nicky Steytler from Chintsa who produce a range of olive oil products. Maretha Hoogenboezem markets an array of cheeses sourced from Prince Albert, Pretoria, Stutterheim and Paterson. John Ricketts supplies baked products, eggs from organic chickens fed with selenium-enriched grain and an enormous variety of nuts.
Besides the temporary market on Fridays and Saturdays, Lavender Blue also markets many stallholder’s products permanently and has gone a step further by offering specialised, regional, value-added products such as preservative-free yoghurt from Bedford, locally made ice cream from Yellowwoods Dairy in East London and fruit juices from Sunshine Juice in Port Alfred.
All this while not neglecting national products such as organically certified dry goods from Wensleydale Farms near Pretoria, Food Frenzy dressings from Western Cape and international products including maple syrup from Canada and asparagus from Spain. “Many of these products are also used in the restaurant, while the response to the more expensive speciality products has been positive,” explains Karen.
Contact Lavender Blue Farmers Country Market on (043) 732 1172.
Economic growth: East London is booming
According to Les Holbrook from the Border-Kei Chamber of Business, last year Buffalo City enjoyed an economic growth rate of 5,7%. This is largely a result of confidence in the city from local, national and international investors. The investment is specifically linked to the expansion of the automotive industry and investment in the new Buffalo City Industrial Development Zone. The investment has fuelled a property boom in the area with over R1 billion in building plans being passed by the Buffalo City municipality last year. “The east coast area north of East London has attracted international developers because of its unsurpassed beauty,“ Holbrook explains. “The area offers an outstanding lifestyle and coastline and this has attracted serious developers.”
According to Natalie Kriel, a local estate agent and the principal of Seascape Estates, which focuses on the East Coast area, property has boomed due to an increasingly mobile African middle and upper class, South African expatriates wanting to make an investment back home and international property developers. “The area has boomed tremendously in the past few years as it was undiscovered,” she explains. “Plots that cost R120 000 in 2003 and 2004 now go for R700 000. There’s currently a 10ha farm on the market for R6 million.’’