Employees at La Ferme Derik excel every year: Jeffrey Skermand (right) was this year’s Farmworker of the Year, Eurica Scholtz (middle) was Female Farmer of the Year last year and Adonis Andrews (left) came second last year and third this year in the middle management division of the Farmworker of the Year competition.
Jeffrey Skermand was crowned the Farmworker of the Year and has the important task of overseeing an innovative in-vineyard packing scheme on La Ferme Derik grape farm. Glenneis Erasmus finds out what makes Jeffrey a born leader.
Talking about himself doesn’t come easily to Jeffrey Skermand, recent winner of the Farmworker of the Year award. He’s a modest man who has lived on the same farm in the Paarl Valley his whole life. This means he has endured the ups and downs of production and the changing face of the market, and experienced first-hand the uncertainties of watching the grape farm where he works change hands. Bought by Hardus Otto in 2003, the farm Malanot was renamed La Ferme Derik. All this made Jeffrey painfully aware of the intricate connection between his family’s livelihood and the farm’s success. Giving 110% – and inspiring others “I love farming; it’s in my blood,” says Jeffrey, who is employed as a junior manager. “have to give 110% of myself to ensure the farm remains sustainable or will end up without a job.” The farm manager, Eurica Scholtz, confirms his devotion. “You can ask Jeffrey or any of the other workers at La Ferme Derik to do something and they’ll work until 10:00pm, then start again at 6:00am. They know their contribution is critically important because of the tight margins in the table grape industry.” Jeffrey and his fellow-workers are also devoted to finding ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency. “We try to limit breakages by treating the farming equipment as if it’s our own,” he explains.
“We keep logbooks recording the amount of work we do and compare them with previous performances and the performances of others to identify areas for improvement.” Pioneering spirit Eurica feels Jeffrey’s pioneering spirit is one of his greatest assets. “We were suffering huge losses because of the electricity blackouts two years ago. thought packing inside the vineyards like they do in Chile would help lessen the impact of the power failures,” she explains. But nobody else in SA does it like that and the farmworkers shook their heads in disbelief when Eurica suggested it. But Jeffrey, with a glint of enthusiasm in his eyes, immediately committed to the plan. “How can you shoot down a new idea if you haven’t even tried it?” he asks. “As an agriculturist feel we need to continually explore new ideas to improve our production efficiency and reduce costs.” Since Eurica was too busy with other farming divisions to take charge, Jeffrey took over. “I simply gave Jeffrey a load of advice on packing inside vineyards and it was his baby from there,” she recalls. Implementing the idea required excellent managerial and innovative skills. “It was a huge project because packing stations have to comply with EU standards,” she says. “This means the grapes have to be left in the shade and we have to make sure no dust gets into the packaging.” An inspector from the Perishable Products Export Control Board, some overseas retailers, exporters and local farmers came to see if the project was working. Jeffrey admits his nerves were totally shattered at times. He wanted everything to be perfect. He also knew that failure could have a negative impact on the farm’s international market access. But the idea became a huge success. Packing in the vineyard When packing in the vineyard, unwanted grape berries are cut away while still on the vines, instead of being pruned away in the packhouse. A picking team then picks the berries around an hour later. Jeffrey explains that this results in a huge inprovement in the grapes’ moisture content because they have time to heal while they’re on the vine, before they are picked. Eurica points out that this method also reduces the handling of the grapes. “This means we have less browning of white grapes, a major headache and a cause of losses in packhouses,” she explains. “Grapes are only handled about three times when they are packed in the vineyard,” Jeffrey explains. “In the packhouse they’re handled up to eight times. They get shaken around on the tractor trailer after being picked, and then bruised on the roller where the unwanted grapes are normally cut away. Then they are physically inspected, which means more handling, and only then are they packed.” The trouble with Jeffrey Jeffrey’s amazing motivational and people skills have created some “problems” for Eurica among the packhouse staff. “Once somebody has worked outside with Jeffrey, they’re extremely reluctant to go back to the packhouse!” she exclaims. Jeffrey shyly admits that he likes to make a few jokes to keep morale high, especially during peak season. “People get stressed and tired during peak season,” says Jeffrey. “By having an open relationship with the workers, I can identify and address problems before they get out of control.” Contented workers are much more productive. “You can’t work well if you have 110 other worries on your mind,” he contends. Farmers and workers Jeffrey believes relationships between farmers and their workers have improved significantly over the past few years. However he prefers not to comment on the negative media reports about the two groups. “Each story is different and one never has enough information to make a sound judgement,” he says. But Jeffrey does feel strongly that the media should be responsible when they report on agriculture, because the negative reports have had a demoralising effect on seasonal workers. “Many of the seasonal workers feel they no longer want to be associated with agriculture. They find other means to earn an income or revert to AllPay,” he says. The decline in the numbers of reliable seasonal workers has had a negative impact on the farm’s efficiency. “We invest a large amount of time and energy in teaching people how to do the job properly, “ says Jeffrey. “All that effort is wasted if they don’t come back. The volatility in worker numbers is making production planning difficult and reduces farm efficiency. People only work when they feel like it or need money.” Accordingly, La Ferme Derik is also starting to diversify production into crops that are less labour-intensive. Not spreading his wings just yet Jeffrey’s dream for the future is to go to Chile one day to see for himself how the Chileans pack grapes inside the vineyards. As for farming aspirations – yes, he would also like to farm one day, but he adds that now is not the right time. “Farming requires a huge amount of skill and management,” he says wisely. “Flying too high too soon can cause you to burn your wings and fall flat on the earth. I still have quite a lot I want to learn before I would ever contemplate going that road on my own.” Contact Jeffrey Skermand on (021) 869 8380. |fw