An unexpected life
Venishree Mayer is not just an olive producer; she is also passionate about her community and all-hands-on-deck when it comes to serving the industry. After having studied law and ending up in global marketing, Venishree spent more than 20 years abroad before returning to South Africa, looking for a place to settle down and move into the hospitality industry. That dream took on a life of its own when she stumbled upon an operating olive and wine farm in the Tulbagh Valley. With the guest farm concept firmly in hand, she now also had a few thousand olive trees and vineyards to make work of. And she did! Venishree became the first Indian woman and producer in South Africa to win a medal at the annual SA Olive Awards.
We took a drive out to her beautiful farm and spent a lovely morning roaming through the olive orchards and discovering just how much Venishree cares about the land and its people.
1. What was the biggest challenge when you started out on the farm?
The farm was in pretty bad shape when we arrived four years ago. There was basically little to no irrigation and the trees were not pruned. It was a bit of a mess and a pretty sad sight. It took a lot of patience, research and learning to get to where we are today. We just had to be brave and dive into the unknown.
2. Did you have any support?
There is no government support, but some of our fellow industry members really went the extra mile for us. Our first port of call was industry stalwart, Reni Hildenbrand, who advised us on many elements of olive and wine farming. Our neighbour, Tiaan Ras, an established olive farmer, was also incredibly helpful. The people of the Tulbagh Valley are truly supportive. During our first harvest we realised that we do not have enough crates. Our neighbour dropped everything he was doing and delivered 150 crates!
3. What is your farming philosophy?
We use only regenerative farming, which means no pesticides are used on our trees. Everything you get in your bottle is 100% pure. When we arrived on the farm four years ago, there were no butterflies and rain worms! Last year was the first year we saw worms in the soil and butterflies returning. It was a great achievement for us – just seeing nature coming back to its original state.
4. What are the challenges for women in the industry?
Farming is historically a male dominated industry, but when I look at the SA Olive board of directors, women are widely represented. This industry lends itself to gender neutrality – all you need to do is bring a good olive oil to the table. There are many female workers in the industry and a lot can still be done to support them. I am a stauch supporter of the Transformation project at SA Olive.
5. How are you involved in the local community?
I came from an underprivileged background. My parents channelled all their money towards an excellent education path for my siblings and I. Education is thus very high on my priority list when it comes to my community. From the beginning, I have encouraged my staff to send their children to school. I’ve also made sure that the children have access to books and are partaking in sport. Giving parents time off to support their children in their educational endeavours is part of our philosophy.
I also donate my time to the local children’s home in Tulbagh, assisting with charity work to hold auction events to generate funds. I’m on the board of another NGO, which is a Marimba band, called the Amarimba Wolseley band. They play at weddings and other events. It’s a safe haven for children to come in, learn and be part of a community.
6. What do you need to make olive farming work?
You must have lots of internal energy, conviction and passion. Also be prepared to be incredibly hands-on – today you might need to fix a pipe and tomorrow you’re busy with high-level strategic business decisions and budgets.
7. What is one of the highlights of your journey as an olive farmer so far?
Coming back to SA and being so close to nature has been a boon to my health and spirit. Watching all the cycles of the fruit’s life – from it growing, to harvesting and then seeing and tasting the final product – all of this inspires me on a daily basis.
8. Is there a trend in the food industry that excites you?
I love seeing the fusion of all of South Africa’s food cultures within the chef industry. The SA Olive Young Chef competition is a wonderful platform to educate young chefs on the benefit of using extra virgin olive oil and from there become ambassadors of the local industry.
9. What is the dream for your business within the South African context?
I would like to help educate consumers across all cultures about the value of choosing good extra virgin olive oil. In doing this, consumers also then fly the flag for SA and raise our nation’s pride. Ultimately, I want to see an increased market share of premium SA produced CTC certified extra virgin olive oil, (fully complying with the standards set by SA Olive).