Community participation in a diverse farm business

At first sight, Stefan and Francisca Gerber seem like an ordinary couple farming Merino and Dohne Merino sheep, Limousin cattle and wine grapes near Stellenbosch. A closer look, however, shows a husband-and-wife team operating somewhat unconventionally.

The Gerbers do not waste time when an opportunity knocks at their door. These opportunities usually have a positive outcome – with an inspiring twist.

Where there is wool …

Their farming business in Namaqualand, just outside Loeriesfontein, is registered as Nuwe Era Boerdery. Stefan farms holistically on 25 000ha in an environment that is extremely healthy. They also utilise the latest technology. “We employ laparoscopic procedures and use genetics from some of the top Merino and Dohne breeders.” Their staff is also thoroughly trained.

In just six months, the couple created ten full-time and 38 part-time jobs. They managed this in a region known for its long, severe droughts, high unemployment rate of 86% and tough socio-economic challenges.

“Our family has always had a history of ‘tough love’ and I guess it also runs in my genes,” says Stefan. “One of our family stories is about my grandfather, Eli Louw. As a three-year-old, along with his older brothers, he used to pitch his tent next to the roadside to keep watch over the sheep during the night, protecting them against predators such as jackal. My grandfather, who is also my role model, knew he had to look after the sheep because it was all his family had.”

In the past, wool was purchased from local farmers for next to nothing and sent overseas to be processed and refined. “The farmers, the people who nurtured their animals and land during freezing winters and scorching summers, never knew the true value of the wool they produced,” Stefan explains.

“Being able to create local jobs has been an amazing experience for us. The opportunity came about when the Matzikama Municipality asked us if we would like to set up a wool-and-wash operation at Bitterfontein. The building had stood empty for years, so we weighed up our options and decided to rent it from them.”

Gerber & Co Tough Love

That was the start of Gerber & Co Tough Love, a venture that literally brings the wool back home, creating jobs and adding value to the Gerbers’ Merino farming enterprise.

The ‘Co’ in Gerber & Co stands for community, says Stefan. “We use the building to weave some of the world’s finest garments from hand-reared and hand-shorn sheep using wool of between 19 and 20 microns. One of the best parts of this is that it’s all done by local people. We supply them with knitting equipment once they’ve been trained to our standards. It empowers the workers, who are paid accordingly, and gives them a purpose in life.

“We are committed to reviving this region through building and rebuilding, restoring the old crafts and teaching local people new skills.”

Gerber & Co Farmstall

The Gerber & Co Bitterfontein Farmstall is close enough to the N7, which runs between Cape Town and the Namibian border. Here travellers van stretch their legs and admire the arts and crafts on display. There is an array of produce, from carrot cake and homemade lamb pies to Soefija’s deli treats and rusks, to enjoy with coffee. Visitors can also look out for Gerber & Co’s lanolin products, made at their farm Kripseberg.

“We are setting up a Boer & Brit wine tasting section at the farm stall, which will be another great reason to stop by,” Stefan says.

Limousin stud

Stefan, who is currently the president of Limousin South Africa, named his Limousin stud Nuwe Era Boerdery. “I believe in this breed wholeheartedly and that it has a sure place in South Africa, especially in respect of to terminal crossing.” The gene pool outside South Africa is much bigger, says Stefan, and it is growing, especially in France, England, Norway, Argentina, Brazil and America.

The Boer and Brit story

When Stefan was studying viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch, he befriended fellow student Alex Milner. Their friendship was born out of their family names. One day, Alex was summoned to the front of the lecture room by his full name – Alexander George French Mordan Milner. “As soon as class was over, I went to him, saying that his names reminded me of my sister who was blessed, or cursed, with the name Gezina Susanna Fredericka Wilhelmina, the full name of Paul Kruger’s wife.”

It turned out that Stefan and Alex’s great great grandfathers had fought on opposite sides during the Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902). Paul Kruger, president of the Republic of South Africa between 1883 and 1900, was Stefan’s ancestor, and Field Marshal Sir John French, a decorated British officer who led the relief of Kimberly, was Alex’s.

“Unfortunately, they remained enemies. But, more than a hundred years later their great great grandsons met by chance, became good friends, and joined forces in business,” adds Stefan. Together they created Boer & Brit, a selection of wines as intense and authentic as the battle their ancestors had fought. Their slogan reads: With the body of a Boer and the nose of an Englishman – you can’t go wrong!

Boer & Brit wines have received several awards for their unique packaging strategy. Stefan takes some pride in the fact that their wine was the first ever to be exhibited in Germany’s Berlin Museum. “Two of our products were the first of its kind in the world. We were the first to bottle wine in a beer bottle using the trademark ‘Bob’s your Uncle’. We also designed the first glow-in-the-dark wine label for the Trans-Karoo range, with an inscription by Dana Snyman printed on the back label.” Today, Boer & Brit is wholly owned by Stefan, who remains on excellent terms with Alex.

It seems entirely possible that Gerber & Co Tough Love, Gerber & Co Farmstall and Boer & Brit wines will not be the only business adventures Stefan and Francisca Gerber take on. The formidable duo is set to continue with their bridge-building – they are currently considering opening a wool scouring mill, which will benefit the Namaqua community at Bitterfontein on a greater scale. –Carin Venter, Stockfarm

For more information, contact Stefan Gerber on 084 515 6677 or admin@jsgerber.com. Alternatively, visit www.jsgerber.com.

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