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De Keur: Women flourishing in agriculture

Women still make up a smaller proportion than men in the agriculture industry in South Africa, especially in managerial positions. According to StatsSA, although women account for 43.4% of the total employment in agriculture only 33.1% of those who work in managerial positions are women. In a study conducted by SIZA, the majority of respondents showed a preference for employing women and agreed that more women are needed in agriculture.

Many in agriculture are working hard to see more women involved in decision-making. At the De Keur Group, located in the Koue Bokkeveld, near Ceres, women play an active role in agriculture, not just in the orchards but in the farm offices, packhouses and clinics. We spoke to several remarkable women who prove that women have just as much a right and ability to be in agriculture as anyone else.

Lena du Toit

3. De Keur Lena Du Toit

Lena du Toit has been De Keur’s fruit packhouse production manager for the last 12 years. She started as a Jack of all trades in De Keur’s packhouse in 1999. After two years as a general worker, she attended a course whereafter she was appointed as a team leader. For the next four years, she worked as a team leader in the packhouse. As things modernized in the packhouse, du Toit was hired as a supervisor. In 2010 she applied for the production manager position. Her application was successful and she has fulfilled the role for the last 12 years. “During the season I have around 380 people who work under me.”

Though many people may find this stressful, du Toit says this environment is perfect for her. “I enjoy high-pressure times when the adrenaline is pumping. I am crazy about agriculture. I don’t think there is anything that could make me want to move away from it.”

Though she works with mostly women in the packhouse, she says that being a woman in agriculture has its challenges. “There are a few men who struggled to accept that they have to listen to a woman since it was usually a man in my role.  The men have come to accept me through the years.” Thanks to Du Toit, more women have been able to move up the packhouse ladder.

Natasha Jacobs

1. De Keur

Natasha ‘Nadi’ Jacobs was born and raised on one of the De Keur farms and has worked on the farm since 2013 when she started labelling in the packhouse. In 2021 she became the first female production assistant on the farm. She oversees 27 hectares of onions and is responsible for a group of 130 people who work under her.

“I am there when the plant goes into the ground and see it through all the way until the onion is loaded on the truck,” says Jacobs. She, like many other workers on the farm, was given the opportunity to attend courses that enabled her to advance her career. She hopes to continue moving up in the company.

“My ten-year plan is to arrive in my double cab bakkie and tell people how to manage their fresh produce,” Jacobs laughs. She currently drives a four-wheel motorbike on the farm, which she says is the closest she’s ever come to riding a bicycle. “My grandmother said that ladies don’t ride bikes, so I never learned.”

Though Jacobs loves her job, she admits that being a woman in agriculture sometimes has its drawbacks. She is the only woman in her position on the farm and most of the permanent workers who fall under her are men. “It’s sometimes a little uncomfortable to be the only woman. I mostly work with men who are older than me. I’ve learned to stay calm.”

Jacobs refuses to shrink back. “It isn’t a man’s world anymore. Why should women stand back? It’s my wish that more women get involved in agriculture.” Her passion for her job is what drives her. “It’s hard work, but I love what I do.” What she hasn’t learned in courses or through experience, she researches. “Google is my best friend. I’m learning as I go.”

Legina Balani

2. De Keur Legina Balani

 De Keur has daycare and pre-primary schools on their farms for children of farm workers. Legina Balani is a teacher and acting head of the Rocklands school where she has worked since 2011 after being a general worker at De Keur for four years.

The children at the school are between three months and five years old. Balani is one of five teachers. Balani has two sons of her own and wanted to go into social work when she was younger, but the opportunity never presented itself, at the school she says she has found her passion. “I grew up on a farm and have a deep love for agriculture. It’s great to see that even as a general worker or a farm schoolteacher that you are making an impact.”

Having been around agriculture for the majority of her life, Balani knows the gender dynamics. “It is difficult to be a woman in agriculture; there are challenges but we women are strong.” De Keur sent Balani on an early child development course and in 2017 she achieved her NQF Level Five. In the same year, she completed her first baby course. Though by that time she has a lot of experience with babies, she says she got a lot of tips and new ideas that she has incorporated into her job.

Despite not having professional experience under her belt when she started, De Keur gave her the opportunity. “I am proud of the work I do and I’m so grateful for the opportunity that was given to me,” says Balani. “There are opportunities on the farm to grow. Women have to learn to grab these opportunities.”

Lydia Olivier

4. De Keur Lydia Olivier

Lydia Olivier has worked at one of De Keur’s wages offices for the last seven years. Though she doesn’t spend much time in the fields anymore, she started as a general worker in 2010 and worked herself up to her current position. She also grew up on one of the De Keur farms. “After school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I started working on the farm.”

One of her managers asked if she knew how computers worked and put her on a trial run to see if she could handle an office job. She now manages the farm’s wages office by herself.  “I guess it helps that I like to work with numbers as well,” Olivier laughs.

Olivier says that there are times, especially during the season when her job gets very stressful. On top of that, she is a new mother and has had to juggle having a newborn and a full-time job. Olivier says that one must grab the opportunities that come your way. “I knew I didn’t want to be a general worker forever. I knew I was going to have to find other opportunities.”

Agriculture presented Olivier with these opportunities. “Agriculture itself is not my passion. But agriculture offers opportunities in different areas.”

Geraldine Solomons

5. De Keur . Geraldine Solomons

 In her 27 years on the farm, Geraldine Solomons worked her way up from a general worker doing “anything and everything” on the farm to the administrative clerk in a packhouse. Both Solomons’ parents were workers on the farm and she knew watching them that agriculture is hard work but also very rewarding. “After matric, I decided to stay and work on the farm. I will admit that I was not crazy about agriculture at that time but now I know it is for me.”

She says she looks forward to going to work every day. “I can’t imagine doing any other job.” Her eldest son also works on the farm. Though Solomons does not work in production anymore, her office job is integral to agriculture. “There are opportunities for women in agriculture. We must not stand back and grab the opportunities that come our way.”

Melony Jacobs

6. De Keur Melony Jacobs

 Melony Jacobs has been on the farm since 2015 and has just this year received another in a string of promotions to become the administration and stock leader in the equipment sheds across all the farms. Jacobs oversees all equipment and has to ensure that everything is brought back to the sheds and that everything is in good working condition. The job, therefore, entails a lot of administration and she has to oversee all the other administration clerks working in the sheds.

“I actually enjoy admin, which is not for everyone. I am also being trained as a backup for the wages manager.” However, she says she likes her job as it is more involved in the actual farming process.

Being a woman, Jacobs says, is not always easy especially since she is soft-spoken. Part of Jacobs’s job is to reconcile the harvest records with the bins received at the packhouse. “If there are discrepancies, I have to ask difficult questions of those who are in charge in the orchards, most of who are men. It’s hard to question people, especially men.”

Yet, she has risen to the challenge. “I’ve learned to have a thick skin and stand up for myself. I won’t allow anyone – especially not a man – to walk over me.”  Like many of the other workers, Jacobs grew up on one of the De Keur farms. She is now raising her daughter on the farm as well.

“Farm life is lekker.”

Suzette (Nonna) de Bruin

7. De Keur Suzette De Bruyn (nonna)

 Suzette de Bruin perhaps has the most unique job of all the women we spoke to as she is a health worker in one of De Keur’s farm clinics. Like many employees, she started as a general worker and moved to her current role in 2008.

Initially, she was just an interpreter who would translate the medical advice into Xhosa for other workers. In 2010, De Keur sent De Bruin on a course in health work and another in first aid. Her job entails house visits to follow up with patients, making sure patients are taking their medication and giving HIV and family planning talks to the farm workers. She will also phone the ambulance if necessary or make sure a patient goes to the clinic in town if they need more help than de Bruin can offer on the farm. “This was by no means my dream. But it’s how life worked out and I enjoy the work I do.” De Bruin was raised by her grandparents and says this is the reason working with elderly people is her favourite part of the job.

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