After 10 generations of the Van der Merwes’ custodianship, Boplaas in the Koue Bokkeveld not only is home to the oldest family business but, is one of the most exquisite fruit producers in SA.
By Gerrit Rautenbach
In 1743 Izak Wilhelmus van der Merwe became the first owner of Modderrasvallei, a farm seven kilometres from the agricultural town, Op-die-Berg in the heart of the Koue Bokkeveld. Over generations the name evolved with the language from early Dutch to modern-day Afrikaans; from Modderrasvallei to Moerasvlei. Although the farm is well-known as Boplaas, the actual registered name is still Moerasvlei.
Fanie van der Merwe, currently part of the ninth generation explains: “Boplaas came into being because, as the Van der Merwe clan got bigger and bigger over the many generations, Moerasvlei was subdivided, but the core farm, where the manor house still is today, remained untouched. It was the highest farm in the valley. Die boonste plaas … Boplaas. In 1973 the homestead and surrounding buildings were proclaimed a national monument. Today my youngest son, Schalk and his wife, Kyla, lives in the manor house. They’re part of the tenth generation.”
The “moeras” or swamp is proof of the abundant water on this farm. Behind the manor house is a mountain, also called Table Mountain (like its big brother in Cape Town) because of its shape with a perennial stream running down to the orchards. All their produce on 150 ha is irrigated by this gravitational feed. Even in the driest years, it has never ceased to deliver.
“In those early years, the farmers in the area tried their hand at a mixed bag of farming. In 1914 this potpourri included the first fruit ever on Boplaas with the planting of a few Bon Chretien pear trees. A big evolutionary step was beginning to take shape,” Fanie adds.
In amongst the Van der Merwes, there was a famous poet as well, Izak Willem van der Merwe, better known as Boerneef. It was him referring to the farm as Boplaas and although he was known as Boerneef, he only lasted nine months farming before he left to pursue an academic career as a lector, poet and writer. “He was my grandfather’s brother. While the rest of us Van der Merwe’s made fruits, he made us famous!” explains Fanie. “My father, Carl Petrus, was also a writer, using the pseudonym Carl Boplaas.”
Apart from literary creativity, the Van der Merwes also displayed literal creativity, especially when it came to fruit farming. First, there were those few Bon Chretien trees (arguably the first fruit trees ever in the Koue Bokkeveld), planted by Fanie’s grandfather (also Fanie) and Braam Fernhoudt in 1914. “Unfortunately none of those old trees are still around. It would have been great to have at least one as another monument. But you know, sometimes you remember the stigma of the suffering in the old days of the recession. And you just want to erase it. The days of these old trees, for example. The days when my predecessors were still scraping dams and ploughing and doing everything with oxen, horses and donkeys. Then one day a tractor arrived. From horse to horsepower is part of the evolution …”
Over the years the Koue Bokkeveld established itself as a prime apple country, but about 30% of the produce at Boblaas is still pears, however now the more suitable Forelle. Around 1940 Fanie’s grandpa and his brother Ansie started their own export company under the brand name Koubokveld. They made their own crates, they used the old original coach shed as packhouse and supplied their own transport to the harbour, sending Boplaas apples to the UK by boat.
“Probably the biggest evolution on this farm was the planting distances between rows and trees. I can still remember in my young days they were planting 6.1 x 6.1. Well, 20 x 20 feet back then. You needed a 12-step ladder to get to those apples!”
When Fanie started farming in the early ’80s, he was planting 5 x 3. “Later on I moved on to 4 x 1.5 with poles and wire and it looked grand. Now we’re farming! Yet, my sons are now doing it 3 x 1.25 and I can almost get to the top apples without a stepladder. Smaller trees, better apples. Evolution …”
In 1997 Fanie switched from micro-irrigation to self-compensating drip irrigation. Water usage for the same 150 ha decreased from 9 000 cubic litres to 6 000. “With climate change, water is scarcer, but we can still supply adequate water to the same 150 ha and the fruit is looking good,” Fanie explains.
“I never raised my kids that agriculture, or Boplaas, is a must. Schalk, the youngest, showed his intent from a very early age, he was going to farm this farm. He is the manager of Boplaas today. Carl, the oldest, was set on selling cars. He studied marketing, worked his way up through second-hand dealerships until he ended up at the Benz dealership in Worcester. At that stage, a loan clerk resigned. I posted an advertisement and amongst the hoards of applications, I found one from a Carl van der Merwe. I said to Hannelie, my wife, this is our son. We called him to make sure.”
“Yes Dad, it’s me.”
“Why? You are earning a lot more than a loan clerk.”
“I don’t care, Dad. I want to get into the business. Legitimately.”
Fanie appointed him as a loan clerk. Apart from doing that well, he upgraded the IT of Boplaas to the next level. When the estate manager resigned, Carl applied. In 2015, Carl was crowned Young Farmer of the Year in the Western Cape and coming second in SA.
Daniel was a commercial pilot but in 2012 when Fanie bought an additional farm in Ceres, he returned to farming via a junior production post, working himself up. Evolution is always a process. Frans, the second youngest is the estate manager on Marlenique, their farm in Simondium. Rather than splitting the original farm between the kids, they keep growing and extending the business.
Now it is 280 years and 10 generations later. From Van der Stell’s grant to the Van der Merwe’s to the New South Africa. Where do we go from here? Fanie, the current managing director is handing over the reins to his sons. He wants to evolve into only being the mentor of the new generations. Irrespective of colour or creed. He is willing to allow upcoming and aspirational farmers to share in the spoils and soil of Boplaas. As long as it makes business sense. Survival and progress is the essence of evolving. As long as you maintain your roots. As long as it can be sustained for many more generations.
It’s a question of stewardship. What you have inherited from your father, you borrow from your children.