By Gerrit Rautenbach
It’s early morning in early autumn. The slow wind swirls some reddened leaves on the slate floor of the weather-beaten stoep of the main house on the farm Erfdeel. Didi Smith-de Kock and I are sharing some coffee and words. Words about her life as a fruit farmer. Words about her as an adventurer. The backdrop to our stage is the well-known Matroosberg. A mountain that got its name from a rock formation about three-quarter of the way up the mountain on the Hex River side, depicting a distinct pinnacle, the sailor alongside his ship.
This story started quite a couple of moons ago. At the time, Andre Smith, Didi’s father was working as the manager on the farm Hoogland near Ceres, not far from Erfdeel where we are now.
On a given Friday, the main water pipe to the house on Hoogland where Didi and her folks resided, burst. With everything under water the Saturday, Andre got the pick and shovel and started digging. At that moment the then owner of Erfdeel (where we are now), oom Kinnie Theron, arrived on this scene at Hoogland.
“It’s Saturday afternoon,” he said, “why are you swinging that pick?”
“The main water pipe needs fixing,” Didi’s dad answered.
“But why don’t you get some of the workers to do it?”
“They need rest. It’s their weekend too. And this is my water pipe,” Andre answered.
The man looked at him for some time. And responded: “If I ever sell Erfdeel, I’ll sell it to you.”
Andre never thought about this again. Eventually, he went to work for the Du Toit group for five years. Didi’s mom, Cora then did administration in the Du Toit group’s offices. They lived off her salary while putting Andre’s away. One day, oom Kinnie looked him up. Erfdeel was for sale. Irrespective of their savings, there just was not enough and Andre had to decline.
“You can rent it, to begin with,” oom Kinnie answered.
At the age of 35, Andre and his family arrived at Erfdeel with R7 000 and not a shovel or pick to their name. Cora cried her eyes out when she saw the dilapidated house. Didi was five years old when they got there. To her it was heaven. She couldn’t get enough of the land, the dust and the fruit. She belonged. She was too small to carry a picking bag or basket so she worked on pre-pack selection. Anything, as long as she could be involved in the farm.
She attended school in Ceres, first as a boarder, but as soon as she could see over the dashboard of the old station-wagon, she drove the 20 km to the school bus’s starting point, driving herself back around three in the afternoons to help out in the orchards. She couldn’t get out of her school tunic quickly enough…
After school, she was set on going to Elsenburg College to get an agricultural qualification. (She believes she would have been the first woman in Elsenburg.) However, Dad reckoned that Erfdeel was not the whole universe and she needed some other qualification to fall back on. In case…Didi became a nurse but after four years she couldn’t do it anymore. She wanted to be back on the farm, but the business was too small for too many farmers. Cordre, her brother was managing the farm under Andre’s watchful eye. She got herself a marketing qualification and entered the life insurance arena. She did well, ending up as the district manager for AVBOB in King William’s Town. She was in her early 20’s and desperately unhappy.
“Please Dad, can I come back to the farm?”
“Good timing, we’re starting with the hardies tomorrow.”
She was beside herself with the prospect of being part of Erfdeel, getting involved with the life she loves more than anything, helping running and managing the farm. But at fall-in the next morning a picking basket was awaiting her. From a corporate managerial position, she was now plucking hardies. Soft hands and softer shoulders.
“Dad left me that whole season with that basket. But less than two weeks later I was carrying it with the best. I wouldn’t give in to a picking basket. Or a dad…Saying ‘I can’t’ doesn’t exist. You do what needs to be done. That’s it.”
It’s now 20 years later. Erfdeel is doing well. Didi is an indispensable part of the triangle (with Cordre and Andre) looking after the production, the inspections, the pruning et al. Nowadays they’re doing it all on a WhatsApp group, Top-crop. Innovation and technology along with the dedication, the earth’s offerings and a close-knit team. A winning formula.
It’s not all about apples…
Although Erfdeel is 1170 ha in size, it offers the smallest workable section of farmland in the area. At present they have 20 ha under apples and Didi and company are planning to add another 20 ha. Looking at the fact that barely 10% of the farm is arable could be a negative for some. Didi saw it as immensely positive. An opportunity. She always reminded herself about the diversification her dad taught her. Never put all your apples in one basket. If the rains don’t come; if the crops fail, you need something to fall back on. The fact that the majority of their 1170 ha was rugged mountain was opportunity smiling.
Introducing tourism at Matroosberg was a wonderful source of additional income. And job creation. It all started in 1992 when the mountain basically burnt down, reducing their major source of income at that stage – wild proteas – to zero. All that was left was the rugged road used by the 4×4 trucks to get the flower pickers onto the mountain and the flowers down again.
With Didi on the bulldozer, they extended the track all the way to the canyon close to the top of Matroosberg to become what is today one of the most challenging and popular 4×4 trails in the Western Cape and reckoned to be one of the top three in the country. At the same time, they restored the ruins of the oldest building, the goatherd’s hut, to offer six beds in total. Not a tourism mega-force as yet, but a good, humble beginning. Today they offer 250 beds in a myriad of places as well as camping for 150 people. And in addition to 4×4, they also have skiing and snowboarding in winter (including heli-skiing), as well as abseiling, a high ropes course where you traverse through ancient humongous pine trees like an ape, rock climbing, quad and mountain biking, hiking, kloofing, ice climbing as well as corporate team building functions, conferences, weddings and, and, and … In addition to being a qualified Satour guide, 4×4, abseil and high ropes instructor, Didi also became a chef, beautician for brides, florist, and whatever else a tourism and event venue requires. But she is first and foremost a farmer at heart believing in an apple a day…
That’s why she joined apples and tourism. Today they are the leaders in offering farm tours in the district. Most of their visitors are from Europe, mainly France and Germany. They come to experience the South African way of doing exactly what they are doing with machines. At Erfdeel they get the opportunity to pick their own bag of apples, being part of the process.
“My favourite part of these tours is telling them that they now have the opportunity to pick a virgin apple,” Didi says, laughing.
“What is a virgin apple?”
Think about it. The picker picks the apple. From the crate the selector handles it. Someone puts it on the lorry. Another hand downloads it at the packing shed. Into a box, then the cold room. From there to the supermarket, packed on the rack to eventually be handled by the tiller before you could eat it. How many hands? Picking it yourself from the tree, it’s only yours.
“Another farming tourism project we began I call Paying Forward Apple Picking. After a picking season, you’ll still find a good amount of fruit left on the trees, missed by the pickers. The guests are then free to pick all they want, on condition that they give half of their ‘harvest’ to the less fortunate. The land gives. We must give back,” Didi says, sitting back. Smiling.
It’s great to meet someone with a purpose. Someone from a family that never says never. Didi is definitely not the dodo, she is the new generation adventurous apple farmer…