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Johnny Karolus – from general worker to Best Entrant to Commercial Agriculture

Carel van der Merwe was a visionary when he bought the farm Disselfontein in 2014. He invested a lot to create a successful new-generation farm. Yet, he never stressed. Because he had Johnny.

It all started when Johnny was appointed by Carel van der Merwe as general worker on the farm Donkerbos exactly 30 years ago. He quickly progressed to tractor driver, pest control foreman in the vegetable division before becoming the loadmaster in the vegetable packhouse. It was evident that here was someone to take note of.

“It wasn’t long before oom Carel told me to move over to the fruit side to do irrigation. It was a case of ‘swim, Johnny, swim’ but at that stage, I was totally scared of the trees. I mean, they were like the real thing, you know. Like sacred. I could almost not look at them.” Yet, Johnny made friends with those trees, looked at them, got mentors to teach him and got the irrigation to a level it has never been.

When Inus Oosthuizen was appointed as general manager at Donkerbos, he agreed and promoted Johnny to fruit production manager in 2004. Empowering yourself with knowledge is a strong belief of Johnny and he did every course he could, mostly high above his perceived grade, but always with success. He got involved in all the production practices on the farm in order to obtain as much knowledge as possible.

In the next few years, the issue of land reform and helping potential new black farmers to develop became more pressing, especially since the attempts of the government were not really working. So, in 2014 the first PALS (Partners in Agri-land Solutions) project, Eyethu Intaba (“our mountain”), was established when Carel purchased Disselfontein over the ridge from Donkerbos and Johnny and 12 co-workers became its shareholders.

“At that stage it was not a flourishing enterprise. From the 72-ha fruit, we only salvaged 28-ha,” says Inus, by then the managing director of Donkerbos. However, in a short period everything on Disselfontein was on the same level (or better) than Donkerbos. That is why Disselfontein needed an above average farm manager. Johnny Karolus, who already was chairman of the farming company, Eyethu Intaba by then, was appointed farm manager in 2018.

“I’ve always been a big dreamer, but never this big! The Lord was good to me, good to us all in this success story.”

Although a humble man, he is in charge of what can commercially be seen as a mega-farming business. Whatever the purchase price was in 2012, the value has just about quadrupled today.

“During harvesting, he is mostly on his own. He mails me his planning, stats and figures regularly and whether we need to talk or not, but he is full-steam going ahead. Believe me, he is the manager of Disselfontein on merit, looking after a contingent of over 250 people. Categorically, he is one of the top fruit farmers in the Koue Bokkeveld,” replies Inus.

Johnny is an immensely enthusiastic farmer with a huge passion for, and pride in his fruit. Those trees are still sacred to him. Should you ask Johnny how he does it, he’ll tell you straight it’s all about trust. “There is no us and them here, only us in it together. Respect is key, and as a manager, I follow every rule to the tee and expect everybody to follow suit. I believe you can delegate tasks, but the responsibility is always yours. But never stop empowering, just as you’ve been empowered,” Johnny concludes.

With this brand of dedication, hard work and belief in himself, it is no wonder he was selected by The Agricultural Writers Association as the best entrant to commercial agriculture in November 2022.

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