Military vet becomes a Farmer of the Year.
South Africa in the late 1980’s was a powder-keg. A nationwide state-of-emergency was in place which increased the apartheid government’s already over-reaching powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. There was hardly a more dangerous time to be politically active and, for Errol April and others who joined the banned military force, Umkhonto we Sizwe, this was a very high risk activity.
Fast forward 20 years and Errol April with wife Caroline at his side, is looking at the new crop of Bigbucks apple trees on their farm Amanzi in the Greyton area of the Western Cape.
With his dreadlocked hair and broad smile, it is hard to imagine the life trajectory that lead to a senior career in the South African Defence Force which he left with the rank of Warrant Officer in the Personnel Division, a career as a builder and renovator and a period making biofuel from discarded cooking oil in the United Kingdom.
“Our family grew our own vegetables and fruit and from a young age I was interested in farming,” he says, so when the opportunity came for a farm under the government’s Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy, I made application.” Although he had hoped for a livestock farm, he soon got stuck into the business of apples and pears, which , he says, he knew nothing about.
“Amanzi was purchased by the government in 2013 and together with mentorship from Two-a-Day, Caroline and I found ourselves as fruit farmers. We invited our nephew Jeremy April to join us in the business which he did. At the moment we are farming 211 hectares of apples and pears which are processed through Two-a-Day and sold as Tru-Cape Fruit. We have future expansion plans and hope, by 2020, to begin eco-tourism projects on the farm,” he says.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Aprils run Amanzi like a military operation. “I developed many skills in the military which are very useful in farming: forward planning and strategy among them. We inherited six full-time staff when we took over the farm and have retained and developed them into an integral part of the business. All our permanent staff have a 20% profit-sharing stake in the business and all are empowered to make decisions that will improve the business for all of us. I know how much I valued the mentorship from people such as Wilmer and Tania Ferreira and Peter Dall so I believe it is now my responsibility to mentor others,” he says of the on-going efforts to up-skill staff on the farm.
“We are in the lives of our workers – they don’t just come to work for us, they are part of our business and our lives and we support them in their communities in the village of Genadendal with feed for their livestock, equipment and fertiliser for their small-scale farming and with general home improvements. Their children go to school in the area and we provide uniforms, sports kits etc. and transport where needed.” he says.
Despite sharing profit with their staff teams, the Aprils have succeeded in making the business debt free of the R4.6 million inherited by keeping a tight control on costs and increasing productivity. “Like in the military, I believe it is important to first analyse the situation and then plan how to attack: we do leaf and soil analysis and then adjust feeding and irrigation accordingly. We also keep a binocular on the orchards so know what is happening at every moment of the day. Between Caroline, Jeremy and myself we plan every aspect of the business. We have maintenance reports in place to if there is machinery like tractors that need reconditioning so we can schedule that well ahead of time. We have also passed two major audits with flying colours and are very proud to be SIZA and GlobalG.A.P accredited.”, he says.
Although being the deciduous industry’s Novice Award 2017 winner as part of the Farmer of the Year, it is creating perfect fruit that drives their on-going commitment. “We grow eight varieties, among them Royal Gala, Braeburn, Pink Lady along with Rosemarie and Forelle pears. We are excited about Bigbucks trees which we have planted on the rootstocks previously used for Ginger Goldens to minimise the delay before we are in full production.” he says.
Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, the largest exporter of South African apples and pears, is responsible for achieving the best price for the bin of fruit so that it can return maximum value back to the grower. Managing Director Roelf Pienaar says that increasingly customers locally and abroad want to know about the people behind the brand and the April’s story is particularly encouraging. “The strength of the Tru-Cape brand rests on the shoulders of all our growers and the example that Errol, Caroline and Jeremy April set on Amanzi is a particularly excellent one.” he ends.
The surrounding mountains and meandering stream seem to hold Amanzi cupped in their hands. “We are blessed with water, good people and passion for what the future will hold,” he ends.
Although away at school when we chat, I imagine that Errol and Caroline have their seven-year old grandson, Alex in mind when looking over the valley to the clouds and years beyond.