Small farming success

My father-in-law, Rudolf van Heerden, is a small-stock farmer in the Free State. On the 700ha family farm, which he has been running alone since 1985, he farms with sheep and cattle.

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He is what many South Africans would call poor. He still has the same black and white portable TV he bought second-hand in the 80s. He very seldom sells livestock on auction. His clients are mainly locals from the nearby town. He is as dependent on his clients as they are on him. He has been doing business with some families for so long that their grandchildren are now his clients. He insists that clients choose their own animal and negotiates a price each and every time.

I am not certain whether it is the small size of the farm or the lack of capital to expand that has kept things the way they are for so many years, but this should not detract from the fact that at the age of 75 he still runs a ‘successful’ farm. Stock management and care is a 24-hour, seven-day a week job. Now I acknowledge that my interpretation of what is successful, what is sustainable and what is good practice is open to criticism as I have never farmed and therefore never needed to be solely dependent on a small farm for my livelihood.

What I can say without any doubt is this: If farming successfully in order to keep on farming is not the most important driver behind your efforts, then failure will surely follow. My father-in-law has made this point over and over again. Farming in itself must be the only reason one farms. Owning land and stock as an exhibition of wealth or as a means to obtain wealth or status in my view is not enough of an incentive to endure what is required to be a farmer.

It is in this light that I acknowledge all farmers out there who toil, and toil they do, only to continue toiling. Owning some land, or inheriting a farm as I will, does not make one a farmer – a farmer farms first and foremost for the sake of farming itself.

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