By Kara van der Berg
Walk onto Bergendal farm and transformation efforts are immediately visible everywhere. This farm on the Paleisheuwel road near Citrusdal cultivates deciduous fruit, citrus, rooibos, wine grapes and livestock. They boast a packhouse, as well as a dried fruit and rooibos factory. There are 80 houses on the farm for workers as well as two hostels so that seasonal workers don’t have to commute to work every day. At first glance a big and successful farming entity, but where did it all start and how did it get here?
In 2005, the Bergendal-Maneberg Workers’ Trust was established by farm owners Potgieter and Ronel van Zyl in collaboration with the workers. Today, 32% of Maneberg Properties (which includes four farms), are owned by the trust. Over the years, the trust has grown to 146 participants, with different levels of participation.
Farm director, Ronel van Zyl, says that right from the start it was important to get all the farm workers involved. “Transformation is about managing people’s expectations and transparency. People will hear they are participants in the workers’ trust but may not know what that means. Transparency is important. We will share meeting minutes, notes, and any other information. This must happen regularly and be done correctly. It’s like a well-oiled machine that must work continuously. And so far, we’ve been blessed with 16 years of success. The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Today, we are Fairtrade certified, so we have a whole programme to benefit the community,” she says.
Marthine Ras, Ronel’s daughter who also grew up on the farm and now serves as the farm’s financial director, said the farm’s emphasis on transformation stems from the fact that the farm is a family business. “The workers are also part of the family business. They and their families have been a part of the farm for generations, and we believe many more to come. We want to foster participatory management and ownership in the business.”
The farm’s commitment to transformation goes beyond ownership. There is a crèche, pre-primary school, and aftercare on the farm, which helps mothers, especially those with young children, to continue working. “These services are there to help families, especially mothers, who can continue working while knowing their children are being cared for,” explained Marthine. Besides a crèche and afterschool care, the farm pays all high school and hostel fees and for tertiary education for children of farm workers. Along with these facilities, the farm also has a community hall where training seminars are hosted.
Though successful, transformation is not without its challenges. “Our biggest challenge is the transfer of skills,” says Ronel. Every year the farm’s needs are assessed and matched with relevant training programmes. HR identifies potential candidates for training and upon completion, they are offered new opportunities. One of these courses was a 12-month learnership programme offered to ten workers who have skills but no formal qualification. The course, funded by AgriSETA and facilitated by the National Training Institute will give workers a formal qualification. “Farm management is committed to constantly improving our workers’ skills. This way skills transfer is constantly taking place,” Ronel says.
Anzette Coetzee, HR Manager, says the workers see the effort management puts in and how much they care about “going the extra mile”. It seems that going the extra mile has paid off for Bergendal and its workers. If the farm is anything to go by, transformation can be a success story.
Levine Adams has been with the company for 26 years and works in the administration office as well as being the chairperson of the workers’ trust. “By incorporating workers into the management of the farm, you immediately change their way of thinking. They aren’t just workers anymore. When you have something to work for, you give your all,” she says.
Willempie Basson, one of the trustees and packhouse line manager, says that he thinks the involvement of workers in management is a wonderful idea. “It’s a good investment for your children and the future.” Jacob ‘Japie’ Douries, a production manager on the farm, said he never thought an opportunity like this would cross his path. “The fact that I could become a production manager proves that the farm wants to create opportunities for us as workers.” Jacob and Willempie are both directors who sit on the board. “We have an open relationship between workers and management,” says Jacob. Willempie adds that: “By having workers on the board we know where the money is coming from and where it is going.”
Another trustee, Willem Booise, won the deciduous fruit industry’s Specialist Agricultural Worker of the Year merit award in 2018. Willem worked himself up from general worker and is now one of the farm’s production managers, indicating the power of transformation the farm has embraced.
The trust has helped to uplift workers financially, even throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The variety of crops on the farm means that the farm can offer employment to their seasonal workers for longer periods of the year since deciduous and citrus are harvested at different times.
Bergendal has lived up to its vision in the past 16 years: “To be well trained, responsible co-partners, producing quality products in world-class business while creating wealth, in harmony with nature and to the grace of God.”
Pictured here: Willem Booise, a trustee, with a seasonal worker. Willem won the industry’s Specialist Agricultural Worker of the Year award in 2018.