Dreaming of sustainable farming in the land of wealth and wine

In the heartland of wine elitism, Fin24’s Matthew le Cordeur discovers the potential of land to unlock social, environmental and economic benefits.

Legend has it that if the cloud covers a w-shaped koppie on the Simonsberg Mountain just above the Boschendal farm, it would rain five minutes later. Standing below the towering mountain, the skies turning dark and a cold snap in the air, I hope the legend is true. The Western Cape drought has caused water restrictions and the land needs every drop of water it can get.

Fortunately at Boschendal, a 2000 hectare farm between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, the owners are waging a battle against the insidious wattle to win back their prized liquid resource.

Boschendal CEO Rob Lundie is beaming. “I have your money shot,” he points out, as I bounce around a tree-felled area with my video camera. “Look how this water is flowing. It wasn’t there a few days ago and now that the wattle is gone, we’ve got a stream.”

Lundie has farming blood running through his veins. He is the product of a farming family in Underberg, one of the country’s hidden gems that has its own famous mountain range – the Drakensberg – looming over it.

His Underberg days long behind him, Lundie had found himself living the dream in Majorca and London running a property development company. His pull back to one of South Africa’s most spectacular farms was completely by chance, when he was tasked with leading the transaction of the farm from one owner to another in December 2012.

Seeing the potential of the farm, which was a separate business entity to the Boschendal wine brand, Lundie saw an opportunity to make a difference and ensure the shareholders saw good returns. “The land was idle when we got here,” he said. “The wine making part of Boschendal had been sold off and the land was waiting to be developed into a retirement village.”

Lundie had other ideas. He saw the potential for creating a sustainable farming business that could create jobs, develop skills and optimise farming products in an environmentally sustainable and ethical way. He proposed a bold plan to his new shareholders and won approval to lead the change.

WATCH: Lundie explains the vision of sustainability at Boschendal

A bold vision

Four years later, Lundie is ready to show the world how far Boschendal has come.

“When we purchased Boschendal I think it surprised many that our plans were not centred on development and quick profit,” he said.

“Our vision for this incredible piece of property has, from the outset, been to positively impact the environment, to invest in and uplift the local community and to build a sustainable agricultural farm which can flourish for generations to come.  

“Of course it is a business and there are some plans for low-key development on existing built-up land, but development and short term profits are not our main drivers.”

It is evident when driving around the farm, that these are not just words. Walking through the majestic vegetable garden that food lovers drool over while eating at the Werf restaurant, Lundie is quick to point out: “This is most definitely not a glamour project.”

“It is just too large a farm for it just to be an ego project. It is a project that has to be economically viable and that’s not just for the return on the investor, but for community return,” he said. “If we are not sustainable economically, then we are not going to be around for a long time.”

Having increased his work force from 50 to about 450, Lundie wants to see the staff increase their skills. In fact, he sees the education and upskilling of the workforce as the primary responsibility of farm owners.

However, most farm owners don’t have the necessary resources to enable this, which is why Lundie would like to see the whole value chain from the farmer to the supermarket to the consumer contributing to a programme to allow this. “There should be some sort of levy throughout the process that goes back to the farmer for the very specific purpose of uplifting farm workers,” he said.

The Boschendal farm shop.

Creating entrepreneurs

Lundie is finding ways to turn previously disadvantaged community members into successful entrepreneurs that can form part of the Boschendal agricultural supply chain.  So far, he has helped local residents establish new self-owned enterprises in security services, cabinet making and egg and poultry production. “Any involvement with local people will reveal that in our nearby Pniel, Kylemore and Lanquedoc villages there are men and women with specialist talents,” he said.

“Our drive is to help such people become established in business.  To do this in most cases it is necessary not only to provide work premises, but also a viable market at Boschendal for their goods or services. It is usually also absolutely essential to set up support systems and to help the new entrepreneur to find other clients or other markets.”

Lundie is also passionate about his team at Boschendal. “We have developed a strong team here, who are helping me turn the vision into reality,” he said.

Lundie has taken his big-city learnings, his farming childhood and passion for discovering new ways of farming to push boundaries of what it means to be sustainable on every level. “I am a Google farmer,” he says wryly, pointing passionately to a plot of land he has rehabilitated to contain countless strands of grass, ready for his herd of hungry cows.

As we finish talking in the garden, the promised rain begins to fall. It’s my cue to leave and Lundie jumps into his double cab bakkie, another farm meeting to attend to.

While it is no easy feat, Lundie has a plan and a mindset that will allow him to contribute to a more inclusive economic environment in a part of South Africa known for its exclusivity and exclusion.

Black Angus cattle at Boschendal.

Four ways Boschendal aims to be sustainable

1.    Improved soil quality  

Boschendal grew its cow herd from 200 Black Angus cattle in 2012 to more than 950 in 2016. The farm employs a strip grazing technique in which the cows improve soil quality by trampling manure and other decaying organic matter into the soil, turning it into rich humus. To further improve the quality, free range, pasture fed chickens in mobile units called chicken tractors follow the cows. As well as producing eggs for guests, they spread cow manure thereby further fertilizing the soil.

This, as well as various other projects to improve soil quality - the use of cover crops to boost natural compost production, minimising the use of harmful of pesticides and herbicides, using the drill technique rather than ploughing the soil and using a biochar that turns agricultural waste into a natural soil enhancer - have resulted in an improved soil quality across the estate.

2.    Environmental restoration

Key projects here include reducing water use through intelligent irrigation and the use of biochar; the clearing of 450 hectares of alien vegetation and the establishment of a conservation area. The estate is also actively increasing its use of sustainable energy: the farm is in the development phase of generating sufficient solar power to meet the estate’s energy needs.

In Boschendal’s hospitality operations the estate is decreasing its footprint by minimising food miles and food waste, as well as using composting and agri-landscaping. Game has been introduced to the York/Groot Drakenstein area to generate tourism opportunities and help conserve the indigenous flora.

3.    Social and economic upliftment

People are a high priority for Boschendal. The estate has created 350 new jobs in the past three year. Boschendal and Solms-Delta have partnered to establish an early childhood development pre-school Klein Handjies on the farm. The vision was to create an educational foundation for the local children and Klein Handjies also offers the enrolled children nutritious meals throughout the day made by Boschendal chefs from estate produce. There are 60 kids enrolled with the expectation for this to grow at least 120 by year-end.

4.    Entrepreneurial development

Linked to the social upliftment, Boschendal provides entrepreneurs from surrounding communities with an initial market for their product or service, start-up financing, business guidance, and back office and accounting support.

Among the small business supported are:

- The Silvermine Protection Services – the security company for Boschendal and Delta Crest Estates, which employs 28 people;

- Pasture-raised chicken and egg production - employing eight people between two related businesses, 2 500 chickens are sold and 8 000 eggs are produced each month;

- A furniture-making business – run by a master craftsman at Boschendal and employing three apprentices.

- New opportunities for local entrepreneurs which are being planned include beekeeping, honey, alien vegetation eradication and trail building enterprises.

* Read more on sustainability at Boschendal.

Take a tour of Boschendal

A selection of photos showing the many facets of Boschendal, from farming to lifestyle and hospitality...

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