Model farm reaps the rewards

2013-01-13 10:00

When neurosurgeon Mark Solms took over the ailing Delta fruit farm in 2001, it bothered him that none of his new employees would look him in the eye.

Solms-Delta operating company CEO Craig MacGillivray says Solms decided to completely change how the farm was run.

This process, and its remarkable success, has made Solms-Delta a role model in an sector bedevilled by inequality and unhappiness.

“He called everyone to a meeting and asked them what their concerns were,” MacGillivray recalled during an interview.

The answers given by the families resident on the farm were simple: eduation for themselves and their children, and housing.

The Solms family established the Wijn de Caab Trust in 2005 in order to benefit the farm’s approximately 200 residents and employees.

Solms convinced friend and philanthropist Richard Astor to buy the neighbouring farm and put the two properties up as collateral to purchase a third.

The land is now owned by the Solms-Delta company in which the workers have a 33% share through the Wijn de Caab Trust.

The other two-thirds ownership is split between the Astor and Solms families.

Along with the shares and a minimum entry-level wage of R100 per day, Solms-Delta has invested extensively in education, housing and healthcare for its employees.

Tour guide and garden supervisor Johan Orayn has been on the farm since 1981.

He was one of seven resident families who lived in rooms in the building that now houses the Fyndraai restaurant where farm residents have been trained as chefs and waitresses.

His family of 10 lived in three rooms, he says, with an outside toilet.

He now has a five-room house for himself, his wife and their three children.

They have electricity, water, flush toilets, DSTV and a garden, standard for all families on the farm.

But to really empower workers, they need to have the option of owning their own house off the farm, says MacGillivray.

Solms-Delta is creating a 200-home “agri-village” on a nearby old forestry site owned by the Public Works Department.

A vineyard and a cellar are part of the plan, and the idea is that workers will manage these for their own financial benefit.

“We will be joint venture partners in the winemaking side with profits channelled back into the community through the Wijn de Caab Trust,” explains MacGillivray.

He admits they’re battling red tape, so it will be some time before construction starts.

Education has been another focus. Solms-Delta now has a crèche for 30 children with six qualified teachers – all of whom were originally from the farm.

Other children’s school fees are paid for by the Solms-Delta operating company – they attend a Franschhoek school. Bursaries are available for children who want to go on to tertiary institutions after school.

Solms-Delta’s employees were not among those striking late last year or this week as protests rocked the Western Cape.

Employee Adam Pieterson said people on other farms often asked whether there were positions at Solms-Delta, which has a permanent staff of 119 and 30 sub-contracted vineyard workers at any time.

Pieterson said his life on the farm had improved significantly over the last decade, and emphasised that the previous owner also treated his employees well but had struggled to make money in a depressed fruit market.

MacGillivray admits Solms-Delta is an exception: not all farmers have the capital to introduce the measures it has.

But, he said, most farmers in the area worked as hard as they could to improve their employees’ lives.

The biggest challenge, he says, is helping workers in a way that means they don’t become more reliant on the farm and limit their own and their children’s choices beyond the vineyards.

– West Cape News

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