“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”
– Former United States President Dwight Eisenhower
South African dairy farming may be a thousand miles from the corn fields of America, but President Eisenhower was right. To farm is to enter an intense labour of love. Anyone who had the privilege of growing up on a farm will agree.
A farmer binds his or her life to the earth in a sacred yet intense life-long relationship. Your counsel are the crows and the cattle your colleagues.
Dairy farming has unique elements. Creatures that provide daily sustenance are nurtured as staff plough, milk and care for these cows.
Dairy farming in South Africa and indeed across Africa is a complex industry navigating a diverse terrain with clashing and complementary natural elements. Where a difficult political past hinders growth at points, the resources are ripe and waiting for harvest.
Milk and its associated products provide essential nutrients for human growth and the maintenance of a healthy diet.
As the world navigates the era of information overload, trends rise and fall but the debates and interest they spark are essential for thriving practice.
The journey from parlour to producer to retailer is a complex chain. The milk that makes it into the designer coffee cup of a writer sitting in a trendy café in Cape Town’s CBD has lived many lives.
Dairy farmers’ important role in society
Food security is essential for any economy and society to thrive.
Each day our dairy farmers rise early. As city dwellers sleep and turn to the sound of urban industry, roosters are the rural alarm.
To farm is to lead a cyclical life close to the rhythms and rhymes of nature. The land and her inhabitants dictate the times and signs of production.
A dairy farmer typical starts his or her day at 4AM. The first milking lasts about three hours. The second occurs in the afternoon. This type of farming requires perseverance and a commitment to slow but deep growth as the farmer builds the herd and by extension the business.
Foundation Farm in KwaZulu-Natal is the Agricultural Research Council (ARC)’s 2019 Master Dairyman of the Year. Quoted in Farmers Weekly (June 2020 Edition) founders Alan and Frances Webster shared the challenges of starting a dairy farm. From difficulty acquiring capital to minimal partnership from milk buying companies, the first five years were tough, operating in survival mode.
Farming – a form of entrepreneurship
It takes guts to build something from scratch. The toils in the trenches can last years, even decades. The desire to give up, sell the cattle and return to the safety of formal structures is ever present. But like an entrepreneur, a farmer is an expert improviser. There is a solution or even multiple solutions to each challenge. And there in lie the gold nuggets that assemble to result in success. Grit and glory are side by side, always.
Autonomy is important in all aspects of life. Farming is no different. Striving to foster a culture of self-sufficiency is an important aspect of the Dairy Group’s vision. Dairy farmers, their staff and herds work hard all year round to ensure that milk and its off-shoot products reach the South African public daily.
It is a tough job and farmers are required to be a jack of all trades and specialists at the same time. A business that well understands the life of the South African dairy farmer is crucial. Market forces, trends and competition drive decisions.
Each farm is a singular ecosystem with its own variables
As dairy farms are located across the South African landscape and terrain differs, diversity plays a big role. Soil structure and weather patterns will contrast from the Western Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. Breeds will behave differently in different geographical landscapes.
The fact that Dairy Group is 100 percent farmer-owned is significant. The farmers’ concerns and on the ground challenges are top priority. A farmer-centric organisation with local industry ownership is the way forward for the South African dairy industry.
Resilience is necessary for dairy farming. All farming requires persistence but dealing with dairy has added complexities. This essential nutrient and food stuff are complex in its organic design so needs to be handled with care.
The world both locally and internationally will always turn with challenges, revolutions and evolutions. 2020 threw a massive curve ball with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. But out of adversity grows opportunity. As scientist Charles Darwin noted, adaptability to change is a core trait for success.
Dairy farmers – fundamental to food security
All industry faces micro and macro challenges in the face of an ongoing pandemic. Dairy farming is no different. The agricultural sector is a bedrock of the South African economy. And within that sector is milk production.
As the saying goes, poultry metaphor aside – we need to support and serve the goose that lays the golden egg.