Painting Outside the Lines – A Farming Legacy Spanning Over 100 Years

Family businesses are big contributors to the world economy yet only 30% survive to the second generation, 12% to the third and only about 3% make it to the fourth generation. These figures are largely due to the inability to adapt and to poor succession planning.

“In 2008 the fourth generation joined Schoeman Boerdery but not all the kids in the generation became active in the business,” explained Schoeman. Tensions arose between family members and households causing the elders to seek help. They were advised to start a forum for family meetings and devise a family constitution. Their mission statement is: ‘Throughout the generations, we have been and will remain a blessing to our people, community and country.’

The family examined its roots starting with Karel Schoeman whose father-in-law asked him to assist with the family farms in 1918. In 1920 farming was no longer mere subsistence but the farmers faced difficult odds. To offset these Karel and 19 other farmers formed the Delmas Boerevereeniging which later became the Delmas Ko-op and still later, the OTK.

In 1925 Karel built houses for his workers and assisted them to cultivate their lands. During the 1933 Depression, many farmers had to sell their land. Karel bought two more farms and decided to plant Hanepoort grapes as they ripened a month earlier in the Transvaal than in the Cape, giving him a ready market.

After World War II Karel imported hydraulic water pumps to access water from the Elephant River and a bulldozer to improve the roads on and around his farms. He also began a practice called Akkoord, still used in the business today. He met with each employee to discuss the work of the past season, give credit where due and agree upon salary.

In 1946 Karel and his sons Andries and Hendrik began a partnership. Their slogan was ‘As good as the best; better than most.’ The partnership lasted only seven years. Andries’ son said that in every possibility his father saw a problem while in every problem Hendrik saw a possibility. Karel realised his sons could not work together so he divided his enterprise fairly between the two and at the age of 60 he became a founder member of Fosfor as well as the Bantu Beleggings Korp. The business had entered the second generation.

Hendrik introduced oranges and naartjies to Moos River and the Loskop Valley, building dams, employing flood-irrigation and growing vegetables among the trees. Exporting fruit provided a good income so he built his own packhouse. He had, by this time, doubled his inherited land. By 1960 boycotts of South African produce caused Hendrik and others to send their exports through Maputo. In 1966 he entered politics and in 1970, became the Minister of Agriculture and later Minister of Transport.

In 1978 Kallie, the third generation took over the reins but also inherited a large debt. He had to streamline the business, improve irrigation and acquire skilled employees.  In four years the business was again debt-free. In 1983 he invited his brother-in-law Kobus Fourie to come in as Financial Director.

On 24th April 1994, South Africa stepped back onto the international stage. Farmers were on their own, facing problems which caused many to sell out, shrinking the number of farmers in the country from 80,000 to 25,000 today. In 2008 Hendrik, son of Kallie and Greg Abbott, son-in-law of Kobus joined Schoeman Boerdery. Kallie is still the MD but the fourth generation, with two more sons-in-law, are firmly holding the reins. They use the family forum, uphold the family constitution and communicate freely. The emphasis is now on the team and not the individual. They are constantly adapting to new technologies; using every latest tool to improve the business. “They invest in people; salaries are on par; employee health is taken care of; management development is a priority and skills development is a big focus,” Schoeman relates.

The Schoeman Boerdery team has a vision for the future. They call it Broad-Based Livelihood (BBL) gardens. They teach their staff and villagers within a 120-kilometre radius of their enterprise to grow their own vegetables, follow a healthy, balanced diet and earn extra income by selling their excess produce. To date 186 households can provide for themselves, 90 are selling to their neighbours and 35 are selling to traders, 22 villages are involved, 640 families participate and 140 families have bought their own tunnels. The team provides the tools to start the project; a bucket and drip irrigation. They do not need a water connection as greywater may be used instead. As an incentive to members for introducing two successful applicants to the BBL, a tunnel is given which can triple their vegetable yield.

An empowerment arm called Zamokele allows the Schoeman Boerdery team to adopt a farmer then teach him to sustainably produce dried beans. Assistance is given in the cultivation, harvesting and marketing of the beans. About 29 farmers are already employed in this production.

The family is constantly trying to live up to their motto and to be a blessing to their community and country. God has provided the right man at the right time for more than 100 years, from Karel the pioneer in 1918, to Hendrik the expansionist in 1946 and Kallie the consolidator in 1978. Now, since 2008, the fourth generation; a brave young team are building our people, our planet and our profit. May they keep on painting outside the lines.

lna Schoeman is part of Schoeman Boerdery which is celebrating its centenary this year. As a family-owned megafarm, they implemented sustainable farming practices that kept the diverse needs of people, planet and profit front of mind, decades before this became “fashionable”. Elna will be sharing lessons learnt over 100 years of successfully competing as a leading agricultural producer in an international market, while remaining rooted in the local context. Be inspired by these pioneers who have been building the South African nation through profitable agriculture with a social conscience.