FARMING in South Africa is not for the fainthearted, particularly for those whose desire is to tread lightly on the earth while providing food for the growing masses in the most ethical ways possible.
In the upper reaches of the Dargle Valley, a husband and wife team set themselves that very challenge and if the proof is in the eating then they most certainly have set the bar.
True, Caz and Will Griffin (CORRECT) took over their farming operation, which includes beef and 1 500 pigs from their parents and their parents before them – as far back as four generations – and that is an advantage, but, as Will explained, farming is no longer what it used to be. Profit margins are tight, often non-existent as input costs soar, but farming, according to the couple, is about so much more than just food production – as important as that may be.
“For example,” said Will, “the beef price has dropped by 30 percent, there has been a huge drop in the pork price and the price of maize just keep going up.”
He said it was important the public were more aware of what farmers were doing and where the products they bought came from.
With the country historically a net importer of meat products, Will said it would be ideal if farmers could label their products themselves so consumers could know how they were farmed, who was benefitting and the integrity in the production process..
About fourteen years ago, the couple said, they went on a holistic farm management course held in the Free State. “We learned how to manage our lives as a whole. For us it’s about leaving the eco-system in good health for future generations, making sure we are responsible employers and producers of the highest quality products possible. Running a successful business is about more than just profit,” they said.
Caz said the holistic management style included her children. “I have always made it very clear to our children how hard we have worked, the sacrifices we have made so they could have the best. It really troubles me when I see young people just expecting, wanting stuff without waiting or being prepared to work for it."
Better known for her bespoke Dargle Valley Pork Products, Caz said when her own father, a farmer in the Mooi River district, lost everything she learned a hard lesson. “When I met Will I was a theatre nurse. I continued to work after we married. We wanted out children to go to private schools. We were also determined we would not go into debt to do that and that’s when I started thinking about business opportunities.”
She laughs heartily as she tells of her first venture when she kept R200 notes in a tin in the ceiling.
“Remember when the R200 notes first came out? I decided to keep each one I got in a cake tin. You cannot believe how quickly they accumulated. In no time at all I had R30 000.”
After much debate the couple decided to buy some Boran – the hardy indigenous cattle native to Kenya – which have now grown to a sizeable herd. "They’re our babies, ah, they are so beautiful,” she croons.
With a love of food, cooking and an eye for a gap in the market, Griffin also started making pork and chicken pies to make the extra money she needed for their children’s education. "I just could not keep up with the demand,” she chuckles.
After deciding to up the ante by selling pork cuts while keeping the pie business more low key, high-end restaurants in Johannesburg, Durban, the Mala Mala Game Reserve among a number of elite game lodges, will now only use her products. “Two very experienced retired butchers helped me to understand the different cuts of pork. I don’t sell anything frozen. It’s all fresh. I only slaughter female pigs which are raised here on the farm. I believe the males have a much stronger pork odour in their meat. I am also meticulous about the animals I select.”
The pigs, on average 18 a week with up to 36 slaughtered a week in the lead up to Christmas, are delivered to the Cato Manor abattoir on a Wednesday, left to stand for a day before being slaughtered on Thursday evening. “The pigs I select are marked and the ones I send are the ones I get back on a Friday morning when we collect. I also only slaughter what I need - nothing is left over,” says Caz
She says there are a number of things which have turned her business into the success it is. “I can track my products from the farm to the point of sale. I follow each step. This business has been running for eighteen years, for the first ten I was very hands on. I would get up at four in the morning, cut up the carcasses alongside my staff, package, deliver and take orders. There is not a thing I don’t know about this business,” she says.
In keeping with their attitude of holistic farming, both Caz and Will say their labourers and neighbouring communities are integral to their farming business. “By setting up the pork business we have created work for eight women and two men. Employment they would never have had. Also cuts which are not sold are processed and sold at a minimal price to local communities. “We always consider our staff and the community, they're inetgral,” says Caz.
And, as she leans over the homegrown chicken sizzling in the pot for pie orders, she says if anyone wants to open up a new business, be it in farming or anywhere else, they have to be prepared to put the work in.
"It’s a life lesson, I guess, what you put in is what you get out."