It’s all in a day’s work for this olive farmer.
1. What brought you to where you are today – a woman in agriculture?
I have always been involved in the food industry in one way or another. I was formally trained at the Cape Technikon Hotel School and started working in industrial catering, running kitchens. I then moved into a sales role, supplying seafood to wholesalers and industrial kitchens. Following my time in sales, I moved onto buying and exporting of foods. Once I started my family of three, I decided it was time I worked for myself from home. I ran a bakery business specialising in children’s biscuits and cakes, as well as teaching cake decorating and basic cooking.
My parents then bought a plot on the Breede River where the first olive trees were planted in 1998. In 2005, the farm produced its first olive oil and, as the farm continued to grow, so did our interest and involvement. In 2014, we relocated from Johannesburg to Riverbend Farm, and that is when I took over the farm management. Since taking over, we have extended the factory and now offer guest accommodation too.
2. Are there unique challenges as a woman in the olive growing and olive oil making business?
As a woman, in a male dominated environment and in Africa, where a woman’s role is often seen as secondary, I think the most difficult challenge has been to gain the respect of the labour on the farm.
It is also an added challenge, as a mother, to juggle family responsibilities with those of business demands. It also does not help that the school is 43km away and I don’t have a helicopter.
3. What are the hard skills you need to make it work?
I have had to prove that I am as equally capable as any man of managing the olive farm from crop to shop. This includes the daily farming activities, fertilizer programs, crop management; managing seasonal pickers; machine and equipment breakdowns; irrigation repairs; olive pressing; curing of table olives; sales and financial management.
With every harvest time, I have to prove myself again as a fair and competent leader to a new batch of seasonal pickers.
I have had to learn to mediate staff disputes by patiently listening, remaining level headed, being fair and offering acceptable solutions.
4. What are the soft skills you need to make it work?
Women bring a greater understanding of staff family dynamics and understand the demands placed on working women, those that need to raise children and maintain their homes. It is important to show understanding and be flexible in terms of working hours; permitting time off for staff clinic visits, school meetings, etc.
5. What has been a highlight in your career in the olive industry thus far?
My highlight has been witnessing the harvest grow from year to year. This year’s 112 ton harvest is the biggest the farm has harvested to date.
6. Why do you love what you do?
I am passionate about food and where it comes from.
There is something extremely satisfying about nurturing the trees, picking the fruit and then managing the transformation into liquid gold.
I love giving factory tours and sharing my knowledge to guests, explaining the process of olive oil and table olive production. I am always pleased when they leave the farm with a new found knowledge and a new appreciation for a quality product.
And of course, who wouldn’t love working in such breath-taking surroundings?
7. What does the future hold – for you, your business, and the country?
Who knows what the future holds? In the immediate future, I have plans to extend my product range and build a visitors centre to further enhance tasting and education experiences.
8. Do you have a funny story about your time in the olive business?
I had just moved down from the concrete jungle to rural Eilandia, when one morning, clad in slippers and gown, I opened the patio door and encountered the most enormous puff adder. It was enough to send me screaming out of the house, through the olive grove, for help. I seconded the closest labourer to keep watch on the whereabouts of the snake while I calmed down enough to dial the local snake catcher.
9. What does your support structure look like?
Both my parents, who still live on the farm, are only too willing to offer advice and support where needed. I am also fortunate to have a loyal long standing farm hand whom I can rely on for help if needed. My husband is my sounding board for new ideas, and when he retires from a long career in banking, he can apply for a job on the farm.