Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
In one of Adam Tas’s poems, he describes a farmer as a man who does not waver when droughts and plagues overwhelm him … a man who cares for a sick animal and continues to believe that he can save it … a man who leads by example, so that his son can one day say: “I want to be a man like my father …”.
When talking to any of the farmers who have had to struggle through the drought of the past few years, one realises just how apt this description is. One such man is Coenie van der Merwe who farms north of Upington. Coenie and his wife, Annalize, have had to endure seven difficult years of drought.
Their farm Kalkbult, some 30km from Noenieput, is situated in one of the toughest production areas in the Kalahari. It stretches across 18km of dune veld, with scorching summer temperatures of up to 54°C. Just before winter set in this year, they received some welcome rain which helped them to see some new possibilities and put the setbacks and losses of the past on the backburner for a while.
Faith and hope
Asked how he navigated the drought, Coenie says he simply kept believing it would rain, but adds that instead of hoping for so long, they should have implemented some strategies to stay afloat sooner.
The drought, he says, drove them to a point where he considered locking the farm gates for good. He had to sell property in Upington, cash in some of his policies and even sold some of his vehicles in order to care for their livestock.
“My children were at school and university at the time, which cost a considerable amount of money. I wrestled with the Lord for a long time. But one day I realised that brooding over the drought and the problems it brought with it would not bring me closer to a solution. Instead, I decided to focus on managing my farm.”
A survival strategy
Coenie’s father had the habit of opening the farm gates as a last resort during severe droughts to allow the sheep to go in search of their own feed.
He tried a similar approach at first, but soon realised it didn’t have the desired effect. Instead, he then divided the animals into groups of 30 and left them in separate camps. He placed larger groups of ewes – no more than 60 – in the larger camps and made sure that each camp had two water points to keep animals from having to walk long distances to drink.
“In the process the drought actually taught me how to exercise better selection practices. With the smaller flocks it was also easier to care for the animals and I was able to ensure that the best ewes were placed with the best rams. It was also easier to spot the passengers among the ewes, and cull them. The most productive ewes proved that they were capable of caring for their lambs, and that steered the farming enterprise onto a better path,” says Coenie.
However, this was not an easy process as he had to do away with a large portion of his flock in 2014/15. Now that it is starting to rain again and prices are good, he cannot sell any of the animals as the flocks have to be rebuilt.
“I believe it will take around three years to get the flock back to full strength, but that will depend on whether we receive a normal amount of rain for the next three years.”
Lessons from the drought
Coenie says that although he has been farming for a number of years, the drought still taught him a few lessons. Because they farm in the Kalahari, he knows that there will always be another dry spell.
“Firstly, you must try to steer clear of debt. Minimise your flock to as few animals as possible, but do not incur any debt, because how will you repay it? Secondly, I have learned that you must keep your faith. Keep in mind, though, that faith is not a strategy. Put your strategy into place and reduce your flock early on if you see the drought is not going to loosen its grip.
“Also keep abreast of long-term weather forecasts and do not raise your expectations above the facts. Thirdly, I learned to manage the drought. You can’t change nature, but you can learn to manage it better.”
Relying on people
An important thing that Coenie and Annelize experienced during the years of drought is that people still care about one other. They also learned that one should not be ashamed to accept help. “People like to give, and at times you must be able to swallow your pride and be grateful for what you receive. Agri Northern Cape has gone to great lengths to help us, who live in the remotest of places, with feed and other assistance. The people who reached out made us realise that people truly still care.
“The help we received carried us through the drought. It taught us to be grateful. We used to be so independent, but the drought made us humble and drove home the fact that we can survive without many of things we thought we needed.”
As the woman on the farm there was not all that much she could do to alleviate the hardship of the drought, but for Annelize it was important to be a sounding board for her husband. “It was difficult to see the things you had built up over years going to waste. But you can pick your battles and so we decided to accept the reality of the drought, to act proactively as far as possible, and to keep on farming.”
Hope and perspective
Coenie says the late summer rains showed them that they were living by grace, and he is thankful that they were able to make it this far. Producers often choose livestock that are highly adaptable, and the Kalahari has taught them exactly what adaptability means.
When Coenie and Annelize van der Merwe smile with a twinkle in their eyes, it is because they know where to find the delicious tsammas of the Kalahari – “where the Lord has left it for us”.
For more information, phone Coenie van der Merwe on 083 243 7601.