On 13 April 2021, Doug Osler was crowned the Free State Agriculture’s Young Farmer of the Year. A magnificent achievement, but it is something that comes from way back. Gerrit Rautenbach went to look at the past that determined his future.
It all started many moons ago when a handful of farmers in the Eastern Free State decided that it was important to have a crop that would have the potential to be exported and beyond the traditional cattle, maize, and wheat that was primarily being produced in that region. A certain Guybon Osler was amongst them, and apples were the call. In 1992 the first orchards were planted on the farm Fourieshoek. At the time Doug Osler was ten years old.
Today Lone Tree Farms is a fourth-generation family-run agricultural business situated in a fertile valley in the Fouriesburg district with mixed farming, but doing very well with apples. Doug is the fruit farmer and 25% shareholder in a team with brother Mike (crops), sister Gill (finance), and father Guybon, officially retired, but still keeping busy with advice and guidance on the farm.
Today Doug oversees 109 ha of apples on two different production sites that are producing between 4500 to 5500 tons per annum with 40% of the trees not older than six years.
Where most apple producers in the Free State focus on the early cultivars because the season is a few weeks sooner than the Western Cape, Doug and his team opted to prolong their season by planting nine cultivars, from Royal Galas right through to Pink Ladies and Sundowners, meaning they pick from early in January to the beginning of May. The establishment of their own packhouse and cold room facilities add value to their product, and to that of other growers that pack with them and extend their period of supply. This spread allows them to execute their marketing plan of exporting a third of their crop, supplying local retailers with a third and the final third going to municipal markets.
“We are blessed, and we have all our apples under nets, but we still are very much at the mercy of nature. Probably more so than the Western Cape when it comes to hail and especially frost. In 2016 we lost almost our total crop on this farm due to frost,” Doug explains the counter side of the coin. But a good farmer is a good farmer, irrespective of where they farm. After being dealt a bad hand, you keep going, make a comeback. With that attitude Doug is seriously at the forefront of the future for apples in the Free State, resulting in Lone Tree Farms deriving 50 -60% of their total turnover from apples at present. This is unique for the Free State where apples are normally at the bottom end of a mixed farm’s earnings. The Free State produces about 2% of South Africa’s apples.
Apart from making apples work in the Free State, Doug believes passionately in a team approach to work and in having good relationships with his staff, upskilling and providing opportunities for them. “That partnership with our people is the real future. Just like us Oslers, there have been many families on this farm for generations. It would be great to see those guys excel. They are so passionate about farming.” He believes in creating a work environment in which everyone is willing to help, learn and grow. According to him, mutual respect for each other is the core factor. It is also important for him to assist his employees with problems, whether work-related or personal.
Doug Osler won the Free State’s Young Farmer of the Year award for 2021. But he almost didn’t. He went to the University of Cape Town early in this millennium to study politics, philosophy, and economics with no real intention of coming back to the farm. The plan then was to join his mates and go to London to do the corporate thing, travel, and become world-wise. Just before he left, an opportunity came his way to work in the packhouse. “Everything then just clicked. The work, the challenge, the farm. It was like coming home. Seventeen years later and I’m still here!”
Looking at where he is today, that was the right decision. He is a member of the Fouriesburg Agricultural Association, chairman of Highveld Fruit Producers Association, and also serves as a director on the Hortgro Pome council. To receive the award, he was judged on, among others, future vision, budget and finances, production, marketing, maintenance, personnel management, and community involvement.
“Getting the award is great in the sense that anybody feels good getting recognition. The other thing is, it is a perfect opportunity to compare notes with fellow farmers to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Going through the process, there is a lot of introspection and opportunities to establish whether your ducks are in a row. An additional bonus is that there is now quite a lot of extra awareness for our brand,” says Doug about the bigger advantages of the award. He also now automatically advances to the Toyota SA/Agri SA Young Farmer of the Year Award to be judged later in the year.
It seems that the future of apples in the Free State is in good hands.