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Agri’s got Talent is way above Ol’ MacDonald had a farm

By Gerrit Rautenbach

“If music be the food of love, play on …”

The famous William Shakespeare quote that has been quoted and misquoted since shortly after he wrote it, has just been quoted here again. This time hopefully correctly, but in a brand new context. Let us focus on the three core words: music, food, and love. The common denominator is love. A love for music and a love for food (or the production thereof). That’s all you need to know to understand why Agri’s Got Talent was created five years ago. It is the brainchild of Hortgro Executive Director, Anton Rabe.

Before the birth of AGT, Hortgro did a lot of industrial theatre with ProCare (social workgroup) and Albert Maritz. It was during these sessions that they realised that many workers were mesmerized with the theatre. And Anton heard them singing while working. It sparked an idea. Agri’s got talent was born.

Anton elaborates: “The project gives the fruit and wine industry workers a platform to showcase their musical gifts while developing skills with which they can make a difference in their communities. The competition is an example of the multi-dimensional nature of agriculture and rural communities as a whole and the contribution that this sector can make to unlock the potential of this country. Hopefully, the show will take root in the bigger agricultural landscape in South Africa.”

In a sense, this sounds like a micro version of SA’s Got Talent or Idols, but although it is similar in concept, run on a much smaller scale with a lot smaller target audience, it actually plays a much bigger role than just discovering idols or performers. It ploughs a lot back into the farming community. While the contestants and winners get an incredible boost, they give just as much back in return. The boost in confidence each contestant gets goes back to the workplace. The combination elevates the greater farming community.

It all started five years ago with very few takers, a lot of giggles and quite some cynicism from a number of people in the industry (employers as well as fellow employees). But over the years most everyone has been sung to tears and laughter. There has been a hand full of winners and some runners-up sparking admiration, envy, joy, great stories, and some uncertainties. It sounds like a microcosm of life.

Five years down the line, it is clear that Agri’s Got Talent is here to stay. But maybe a sort of audit on the value of this project is necessary. What is the return on investment with Agri’s? For both employers and employees. Is it a pretentious sing-along party, or does it have a deeper meaning and benefit? The best answer will come from the people themselves.

“I’ve experienced people with Agri’s that cannot really sing, but just because they’ve exposed themselves to the challenge, they grow. The upliftment, the boost in self-confidence is amazing, and just being part of it evolves them to a next level,” says Thea van Zyl, events coordinator looking after Agri’s for the past two years.

On the other side, many contestants with true talent have the dream of becoming professional career singers. One would think that this might be a concern for employers, but not really. Just compare it to the much larger shows like Idols for instance. Literally, thousands line up to impress the judges. But only a few end up leaving their day jobs. If Agri’s can discover one Yanga Sobetwa (Idols 2018 winner) the whole industry would cheer. And agriculture will be the winner. We all love a hero. (Incidentally, the 2005 Idols winner, Karen Kortje was an apple packer on a Grabouw farm. Imagine if Agri’s was already running at the time …)

“Music is the only true universal language. It makes us all the same. It’s the best tool we’ve got,” reckons David Sonnenberg. Together with his wife, Sue, the owners of Diemersfontein near Wellington go more than the extra mile to help their employees to get in tune. Sue has been professionally involved in singing, but more than that, they both love music and the magic that goes with it.  Some years ago they formed the “Excellence out of Africa Trust” to help young talent develop their skills. The now world-famous Pretty Yende is a beneficiary of the Trust. With exactly the same effort, the Sonnenbergs support Agri’s. No wonder then that Diemersfontein so far has had five takers ending up in the Top Ten over the five years with Jason Tiras third and Mbulelo Sikade the winner in 2017.

“I knew the music was in me,” says Mbulelo, “but I didn’t know that you can get people that can train you, motivate you, talk to you, positively. Then I met Cheslin Prins who has been in the Top Ten before and I learnt about Agri’s Got Talent. I prayed, I sang … I won! I will go on.”

It’s great to offer this form of development to farm workers, creating mini-celebrities but does it not cause a form of conflict between contestants and non-contestants, one might ask. Not according to Riaan le Roux, a Top Tenner who was awarded the prize of Mr Personality, nogal. “Because we sing, we get the opportunity to train. To develop our skills. So some of the people who do not sing were at first annoyed because we get time off during work to sing. They thought it was just a happy sing-along party. Then they came to sit in, looking at what we have to do. How hard work voice training is. So they opted, by choice, to go back to the vineyards!”

It’s comparable to something like any school’s first rugby team. There are only 15 positions available, but the rest of the school stands behind them, cheering them on. Even if you personally only made the second team, you’ll still wouldn’t like to see your team not winning. The same thing happens on Gala Night. Only ten get to sing, but many of their fellow workers queue up to cheer for their celebs. The competition is not between them and the singer, it is between the farms. La Plaisante Estate vs Leeuwkop Boerdery vs Wildekrans, Oakdene, Robertson Winery and so on.

Apart from the actual singing, the project helps to develop social skills and confidence. Amongst other attributes. Such as developing and growing a social conscience. A great example is Jason Baartman, runner-up in 2017 (a rapper that has, for example, since Agri’s also performed at the Woordfees with Simon Witbooi – better known as Hemelbesem). Combining his love for farming and singing, he wrote and performs a song called “Maak die boer dood” (Kill the farmer), an outcry against farmer murders.

Maak die boer dood
en jy gaat honger ly
dit laat wonder my
laat my verstom met pyn
wie gaat die land voed
as boere kom en gly …

Nothing in life is really a perfect pitch, but the positives completely outweigh the negatives with Agri’s, reckons Petra Nel, the social worker from ProCare involved with the project from the beginning.

“It’s a big honour for them, for the farms where they come from. The community newspapers make a big thing of it when someone reaches the top ten. They’re instant celebrities. But that’s just the beginning. The main object is, after they’ve showcased their talents, they go back into the workplace. A lot of times there are quite some backbiting and downgrading from fellow workers when these ‘celebrities’ are back in the workplace. Without the false nails, hairpieces, and jewellery. Again conflict and competition to handle. As well as the laughter and bickering if you didn’t make it. You learn that sometimes in life, it is good to be a loser. Not when you lose, but when that loss eventually motivates you to become a winner. Making you ever stronger to do it next time …

“But mostly they add what they’ve learnt to the work environment. It works. They know more, they are more. By being exposed, they learn to handle stress better, how to communicate and handle conflict, being assertive. The acquired knowledge eventually rubs off on the rest. Apart from newfound life skills, they often simply use their improved knowledge about singing to aid to their communities. Some people have even started youth singing groups and their own smaller competitions, keeping the youth occupied, interested and involved in something good, rather than merely hanging out bored and exposed on a street corner.”

Looking at the general profile of typical contestants, they are people who, because of circumstances, might or might not have finished matric, but there was no money available to go any further. Options are limited. Maybe a policeman or warden, nurse or back to the farm. It’s not as if they’ve really chosen agriculture, it was one of the few options available. However, suddenly, because they are in agriculture, they are exposed to Agri’s got talent and their horizons change. They start looking at their world differently and the world starts looking differently at them. Growth. Something that every farmer understands and depends on. And if they move on, leaving farming, it’s great. Let the world be their oyster …

It is understandable that the employees would generally be all for Agri’s. Jealousy, back-biting and all included. But how do the employers feel about it? Like almost everything else, it evolves over time.

Five years ago a lot of employers shrugged it off as something silly interfering with their schedules. There were cases where an employee who made it to the week’s training and Gala Night had to take leave and fund the trip themselves. Five years down the line, this has changed. The bigger it grows, the better it is received.

Whichever way, let the employers and employees speak for themselves:

“I study music wherever I go. On the internet, television, wherever the opportunity arises. If I could speak about music the whole day long, I would be happy.” – Neville Fortuin from Little Oaks Trust in Villiersdorp who walked away with the 2016 crown.

Nic Dicey, director and co-owner of La Plaisante, Wolseley: “It’s obviously good for the workers, but also good for the farm. In the end, the positive enthusiasm it creates comes back to the workplace. It offers a couple of weeks where there’s a special vibe on the farm. But the positiveness remains long after Gala Night. This year was the first time someone, Victor Fredericks, from La Plaisante took part. But everybody’s already talking about Agri’s 2019.”

“We (2017 Top Ten) became good friends. Ended up sharing a lot. From farm to farm. It was always positive, learning a lot about life, a lot about things behind your own borders. It makes your world bigger,” reckons 2017’s Mr Personality, Riaan le Roux from Diemersfontein.

“I always loved singing, but I still couldn’t believe it when they call my name,” says Ayabonga Mhobo, the man with the velvet opera voice that won in 2014. “But after that, it was time to give the music back to the community. Through his full-time role at NGO Norsa, he’s inspiring youngsters in the area to reach and sing for their dreams.

“Music makes the world a better place. The same goes for Agri’s got talent …” – David Sonnenberg, owner of Diemersfontein.

“Singing has always been a part of me, but winning this competition is a dream come true! I still need to pinch myself,” – Armando Baartman from Saratoga Fruit Estate, near Robertson, and the 2015 winner.

“I wish there were more opportunities like this we could expose our people to,” says Braam Gericke from Wildekrans with passion. “Agris’s is an absolute feel-good opportunity. I believe people deserve every possible opportunity to feel like that. They deserve it. It should be the window of a farm to the outside world and it is amazing what positive mindsets can achieve. And Agri’s offers that. It’s so awesome, we’ve even had our own talent show on the farm since. Maybe Agri’s is small compared to the big, big world out there. But small things make big differences … like a small pebble making endless ripples in a big dam.”

“The music is not about the notes, but the silences between them …” A famous quote. This is not from Ol’ MacDonald or one of our farms, but so famous that it has been credited to more than one muso. Mozart and Debussy. Nogal. Be that as it may, it reveals the secret to the success of the music. In about the same vein one can translate that into agriculture: It’s not about the plants, but the spaces between them. And more. Simply put, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is what Agri’s Got Talent is all about. Harmony.

So, if music be the food of love, play on …

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