Knysna forestry dynasty. Rooted in the past but growing for the future

The Van Reenen family has been farming timber in Rheenendal near Knysna for four generations. Warren Rosewall finds out where they’ve been, where they’re now, and why, in an unstable timber industry, they’re still confident about the future.
Issue date

- Advertisement -

The Van Reenen family has been farming timber in Rheenendal near Knysna for four generations. Warren Rosewall finds out where they’ve been, where they’re now, and why, in an unstable timber industry, they’re still confident about the future.

Between the holiday town of Knysna and the forests of the Outeniqua mountains lies the village of Rheenendal, home of the Van Reenen family. Their company PJ van Reenen (Pty) Ltd, is named after the founder of their farm Redlands, now under fourth-generation management. It successfully produces treated radiata pine for the local and export markets. “We’ve been in operation for nearly 100 years,” says Warwick van Reenen, a director of the company and manager of the pole yard. “The family will adapt to changing circumstances as it has done in the past. Seedlings planted this week will be harvested in 25 years’ time.”

PJ van Reenen’s dynasty

Warwick relates the story of how his great-grandfather PJ van Reenen Senior arrived in the area from the Cape in 1912. He began by scratching a living and ended up founding a dynasty. The Van Reenen farms are about 4 000ha in extent. Some 2 100ha is planted to radiata pine, which is denser than other pines and makes better building timber, but it is very sensitive to hail damage. Fortunately, the southern Cape is (almost) hail-free. About 800ha of the farm is preserved Knysna indigenous forest in which no exploitation is carried out and the wildlife is protected. The trees in these indigenous forests are mainly Cape beech and hard pear but also include large numbers of stinkwoods and yellowwoods.

- Advertisement -

Down to business

The company follows the standards set by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) which monitors whether the farms meet good practice standards. PJ van Reenen (Pty) Ltd market their saw logs through NCT Forestry Cooperative, which negotiates prices and volumes with two sawmills in the local area on PJ van Reenen (Pty) Ltd’s behalf. The felling is done by the company’s own teams as well as local subcontractors, whom they’ve helped to set up felling teams. The transport is done almost entirely by subcontractors. Poles are cut at about 14 years after planting in the routine pruning of the saw log forests where about half the trees are removed. Poles are cut, debarked and shaped. hey are then tanalised – treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) – on the company premises. Wine farms and Western Cape pole depots take 50% of the products, while about 20% are sold locally as fence posts and garden products.

The remaining 30% are exported to the Middle East and UK where they’re assembled as specialised garden products, in the form of gazebos, play structures and ornamental fencing. The Cape wine industry has reduced new plantings of vines because of the export surplus of wine, so any expansion in the pole market is instead expected in specialist leisure products over the next few years.

Boosting Production

PJ van Reenen (Pty) Ltd have a strategy for boosting production: Use all the land that has been issued a permit to plant. Often the corners of the land can be expanded and alien vegetation, like wattle, eradicated close to watercourses. This leads to wildlife’s return to the wetlands and the re-establishment of indigenous belts, which are less water-hungry and create natural firebreaks. Use the latest varieties of trees. All the seedlings are grown by Mountain to Ocean (MTO) research facility, formerly SAFCOL. MTO use first-generation certified plants for maximum growth. Apply more fertiliser – mainly phosphate, which is very deficient in the Knysna area, and Calcitic lime at planting, to supply calcium and improve soil pH. Weed more regularly. Hand weeding is done annually for the first six years, until the pines form a canopy to shade the weeds and fynbos. Apply for more permits to plant. The main stumbling block here is the time it takes to process an application for new plantings. The committee has to assess the stream flow reduction the new trees will cause before they recommend the permit be issued. Encourage other plantings on the surrounding farms to help achieve economies of scale in training, skills, mechanisation and transport. However, not many farmers are prepared to plant crops as long-term as timber.

The undergrown timber industry

According to Warwick van Reenen and plantation manager Louis Triegaardt, the SA timber industry only produces about 90% of the volume the market needs. The fires in Mpumalanga have depleted a further 20% of this year’s production. If you add to this the normal escalation in demand, there has been huge under-investment in the timber industry. Making this situation even more critical is the 25-year lead time from planting to production of saw logs and the fact that planting permits are often delayed or denied. Pending land claims and other political uncertainties have made farmers more reluctant to make long-term investments. This is already affecting the timber price, which is likely to rise even higher when the shortfall needs to be imported. This sounds almost like an ESKOM-style problem, where authorities have neglected long-term strategic planning. Consumer beware – we’ll all be paying a lot more for timber in the future. Visit, or contact Warwick van Reenen on 082 747 9275 or Louis Triegaardt on 082 953 7103.

A new administrative challenge: BBBEE

Warwick explains that PJ van Reenen (Pty) Ltd is a Qualifying Small Enterprise (turnover is between R5 million and R35 million) and thus needs to meet any four of the following criteria to qualify for a BBBEE contribution. 1. Ownership: 25% + 1 vote. 2. Management and control: 50,1%. 3. Employment equity: At nought to five years = 40% management and 60% employees. At six to 10 years = 60% management and 70% employees. 4. Skills development: 2% of payroll. 5. Preferential procurement: nought to five years = 40% of spend, thereafter 50%. 6. Enterprise development: 2% net profit after tax. 7. Socio-economic development: 1% net profit after tax. The company has selected sectors 3, 4, 6 and 7 where they predict they will be between 60% and 100% compliant with their existing management staff; training courses arranged; further assistance to forestry subcontractors; and their social upliftment programmes, already underway for years. At present the minimum requirement in the forestry sector is 31% compliance. According to the company statement, “PJ van Reenen (Pty) Ltd has traditionally always been proactive in these specific areas and is quite confident that it will not be adversely affected in any way.”

The Van Reenen family tree

Warwick’s great uncle, Vintcent van Reenen (second son of PJ van Reenen Senior) has recorded the family history, which like any SA farming story has its trials, tribulations and triumphs. For the first 10 years the family farmed fruit, vegetables, crops and animals. They survived war, Spanish flu, floods, the depression, and debt. The family fortunes improved in 1921 when their first sawmill was built to manufacture ox-wagon parts, mainly from stinkwood, hard pear and ironwood. After two sawmills in succession had burnt to the ground, PJ van Reenen Junior built a bigger one to process the radiata pine which was planted from 1940 onwards. For the next 50 years the Van Reenens supplied various forms of building timber until, in 1994, they closed the mill because it was too small. The pole yard was expanded in 1995 and has been going strong ever since.

Any readers interested in the history of this area are advised to explore the company website, at It offers a lot of insight into the lives of this area’s pioneers, how many difficulties they faced but also how much fun they had. According to the definitive quote the Van Reenen men are “characterised by their determination and stubbornness and an ability to have a strong vision of the future”. Another historic quote is “my [Vintcent’s] father’s [PJ Van Reenen Senior’s] farming guide was the Farmer’s Weekly which he usually read from cover to cover. This publication had fairly recently been started and was edited by an old school friend of my father, one Sydney Yorke Ford.” This relationship also seems to have led to the introduction of the first kikuyu grass to the area. The family story makes many references to “Tottie”, the name given to Vintcent’s mother Florence by her grandchildren because she called them “tiny tots”. Tottie was the matriarch of the family and seems to have held it all together when the going got tough. Carol-Anne van Reenen recently opened a restaurant on the premises, with the company shop, filling station and take-away, called “Tottie’s”. Carol-Anne’s husband Willoughby “Willo” van Reenen is Warwick’s father and managing director. Her son Robbie Bruce-Brand is financial director and general manager and her daughter Janice Lynn Bruce-Brand is accounts manager.