Our group of 16 U.S. farmers landed in South Africa over two weeks ago, full of expectation and anticipation. We were not disappointed. From learning about Nelson Mandela's global impact, to astounding mountaintop orchards, this was an incredible journey for a group of outsiders eager to learn about this nation's agricultural challenges and vast future potential.
Let's start with Mandela. Our group was focusing in on farm visits when we got the news of his passing. Being here during this special time was something none of us will ever forget. Even as I write these words, a crowd is gathering outside to attend a Cape Town memorial service in the great statesman's honor. Since word of his death, the South African news media has churned out story after story on Mandela: his activist background, his rise to prominence, his suffering 27 years in prison, his victorious release and rise to leadership to become the nation's first democratically elected president.
We all felt privileged to witness the national emotion coming out of this event.
Yet, the visionary causes of Nelson Mandela – healing, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation – only go so far in a country ravaged by poverty, political corruption and HIV. Hope and reality often collide here in what can best be described as nature's kaleidoscope, where vast ecosystems and beautiful biodiversity exist in real life, not as some meek claim in a pamphlet at your local zoo. Yes there are real lions and cheetahs and other wildlife, many of which we discovered from the safety of a Land Rover.
But the main purpose for our tour was to meet farmers and learn how their businesses operate. From Gerrit Roos, with his 4,000 head of Merino sheep and Tuli and Pinzgauer cattle, to Thys Roux, who grows wheat, canola and sheep further south near Cape Town, gave us a great insight into how farming works here. We were impressed with the can-do, upbeat attitudes and moxie that drives these producers, despite some economic and political difficulties.
"The three big farms we visited in the North were tough ground or tough weather conditions," notes Washington farmer Alvie Fountain, one of our tour participants. "Yet, these people were able to farm around the tough soils and make a living."
Mango farmer P.J. Roodt patiently explained his production methods and the somewhat tricky steps he must take to determine when fruit is just right for picking; a lot of it gets shipped to Europe so the timing is critical.
The differences between our agriculture sectors is immense. American farmers complain about raccoons in their corn, but consider Roodt's main 'critter' concern: baboons coming down from the mountains to forage on his fruit.
"At least the monkeys eat the whole fruit," he told us. "The baboons just move down the rows, take a bite and throw the fruit on the ground."
We met Rob Slater, a dairyman passionate about the top-echelon herd he cares for at the DeGrendel Estate outside Cape Town. We were lucky to meet the owner, Sir David Graaf, who also established a winery at the farm. The farm does genomic tests and picks top three for cross planted embryos, to keep multiplying the top genetics and improving the herd.
Perhaps the highlight was a trip through South Africa's 'Horn of Plenty,' into the mountains – about 3,000 feet above sea level, where we discovered thousands of acres of orchards thriving on rocky, sandy soils. The Dutoit fruit company has been farming here over 150 years and is one of the leading fruit suppliers to South Africa as well as Europe. The farm is integrated – from land to packing to marketing and shipping. This was the biggest apple producing area of South Africa and their equipment, technology and work staff were as good as any I've seen.
Everywhere we turned, there were friendly people who waved and smiled and sang, not because some tourism school taught them but because that was, simply, the natural thing to do.
That inner beauty just resonated everywhere we went, and we saw a lot, thanks to Tiffany Trump and Trump Tours, our partners in this adventure. Tiffany knows people – or should I say, the right people. That network helps her get access to Ag businesses and farms, places you simply cannot experience unless you are on a specialized tour such as this. She also has access to the best tour guides, and we were overjoyed to be accompanied by Manuela Daniels, one of the best in the business. Not only did Manuela understand South Africa, she helped put this place into context for outsiders who really don't understand what's happening here.
I'll have a few more tales to tell from this experience, but I wanted to give you a small taste of our trip and encourage you to watch for more Farm Futures tours coming up. The best way to learn about agriculture around the world is to get a passport and go.
Meanwhile, Merry Christmas everyone!