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COVID-19 risks to farming communities are real - but a remarkable couple has stepped up to the plate with leadership and support

19 Aug 2020

We're in this together

If you make your way up the hairpin bends of the Versveld Pass, just off the N7 above Piketberg, you will reach the rural mountain-top community of Piket-bo-Berg, where, they say, the air is cool but the people are warm.

We’re in this together.
Extraordinary times require an extraordinary response. Our people and partners have responded by dedicating time and resources to various initiatives. This is how a humble rural couple has stepped up to mitigate the impact on their fellow workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

This is certainly true of the Futuregrowth Agri-Fund’s deciduous fruit farm and a husband-and-wife farmworker team, who grew up, met and fell in love on the mountain and currently both occupy management positions on the farm.  

A crucial community  

The Fund’s farm forms part of the Bergriver Municipality, where agriculture is the mainstay of the area, contributing nearly 30% of its GDP. The Western Cape Province is the largest growing region of deciduous fruits in South Africa, and accounts for about 80 percent of the apple and pear production in the country. 

Like all communities in South Africa, the people of Piket-bo-Berg have been affected by the coronavirus - and their location on top of the mountain, combined with restrictions on social interaction, has increased feelings of isolation, fear and uncertainty.

The Fund’s farm has 120 permanent workers, most of whom live on the farm. Many have been there for several generations. These workers and their families are part of a distinct and vibrant community that is integral to food production and long-term food security.

Risk and resilience

Farmers and farm workers are no strangers to adversity. Landbouweekblad editor Chris Burgess reflected on this in an article on 27 March: “As people start to isolate themselves socially, they will probably rediscover what really matters in life. Perhaps there is something auspicious in all the discomfort. The drought has shown how crises can bring out the best in people. Maybe South Africa can emerge stronger on the other side of this calamity” (translated from: Koronavirus raak ons almal/Coronavirus affects us all).

However, with workers in agricultural supply chains among the groups at high risk of COVID-19 infection, there is a fine line for farmers and farm labour between risk and resilience. The need for caution has to be balanced with the ability to be productive; education and communication is essential, but needs to bring about understanding and compliance rather than panic and resistance.

It takes a special kind of person to navigate these nuances and demands. The Fund’s farm is fortunate to have two such individuals in John and Jacolene Mbalula.

John’s journey

John was born in Piketberg in 1974 and was raised in a single-parent, all-women household with his mother and two sisters. During his youth, opportunities were scarce and often limiting. Like many of his peers, he was unable to complete high-school and started working on the surrounding farms in order to support his family.

John

In 1994, at the age of 19, he started working on the Fund’s farm as a general worker, where his potential and hunger for knowledge were soon recognised. He completed courses in pruning, forklift driving, and team leadership, as well as NQF level production management, amongst others. Within five years he was promoted to supervisor, and today is the Assistant Production Manager on the farm. This includes the management of teams of workers, which he clearly enjoys. He also has a passion for improving the water and irrigation systems, and often spends his free time mending broken pipes.

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In his early days on the farm, it was his nature to give the workers committee “constant feedback when necessary” requesting, for example, clarification on pay regulations, to ensure that there was a common understanding amongst workers and management on the issue.

Jacolene’s journey

Jacolene first arrived at the Fund’s farm at the age of 15, when her family moved to Piketberg and her parents became workers on the farm. She started employment on the farm in in 1995 as a general worker. Nearly 26 years later, she is still on the farm - and is now part of the farm’s management team.

As Packhouse Line Manager, Jacolene is responsible for all the daily operations within the farm’s large and highly technical packhouse. Her responsibilities include managing the productivity of workers as well as packing procedures. Over the years, she has witnessed the makeover of the packhouse, the installation of a new ceiling, air-conditioning and proper lighting – and the overall improvement of working conditions and protective clothing. She is particularly proud that the packhouse is now BRC compliant (an internationally recognised standard of food safety and quality, which is audited annually) and asserts: “We will do whatever we can to keep this”.

Jacolene has worked and trained in most areas on the farm, including the handling of chemicals, plant production, computer literacy, supervisory skills, and more. She was also a member of the workers committee and attended night school in order to get her matric. Attendance was encouraged by school tours and the sponsorship of grocery vouchers for those completing their courses.

When she is not in the packhouse, Jacolene can be found working in the orchards or in the office assisting with the wages. Her work experience has given her a deep understanding of the operations across the farm - but, not stopping there, she is currently perfecting the fine art of effective pruning.

Read, COVID-19 risks to subsistence are real

More than a job

John and Jacolene met, married and raised their three children on the farm. Their children attended the crèche and school aftercare on the farm property. Keeping the tradition going, two of their grandchildren now also attend the crèche, which now offers full ECD care. Jacolene became a supervisor in the same year that their third child was born and she attributes her ability to further her career to the peace of mind afforded by the farm’s childcare facilities.

Jacolene also speaks of being thankful that she was able to put her computer training and the laptops on the farm to good use helping her children with projects and research for school. She is fully aware of the long-term (some might say, strategic) impact of these and other benefits. It is humbling when she recalls the excitement she and her fellow workers felt were when their houses were renovated and solar geysers and electric lighting were installed – as this would “take away the stress of working overtime and going to a dark house with cold water at night”. She recognised that this would “change the workers’ mindset” about working overtime.

John enjoys the challenges that may arise from managing people as well as systems. He strives for constant self-improvement and particularly appreciates the training opportunities he has had on the farm. He also values the pre-paid healthcare provided to the workers on the Fund’s farms (sadly uncommon in the industry) – although he reckons that, at 46 years’ old, his “youthfulness” is due to “leading a clean life on the mountain”.

In addition to being committed and respected members of their church, John and Jacolene love being surrounded by the peace and natural beauty of the mountain top, and the views of the orchards as they change throughout the year. Their story illustrates how a farm employee’s personal life and professional growth are intimately intertwined with the history and development of the farm – and why farming can never be “just a job”. All the more important, then, that the system supports the wellbeing and actualisation of its workers, as has become increasingly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jacolene and John

The sum of many parts

Initially, as word of COVID-19 reached the mountain, many of the farm workers and local community felt that it would not affect them.

Farm management staff were provided with in-house training regarding COVID-19. Jacolene and John, in their respective management capacities, trained all the teams working in the orchards on the protocols and behaviour modification required for their own and others’ protection during the pandemic. Although most of the workers complied with the instructions, few understood the necessity of all the measures.

With their diverse working experience and many years living on the farm, together with their active community involvement, John and Jacolene have a deep-seated perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on the farm workers and their families. With no visitors allowed on the farm and visits to town strictly regulated, feelings of isolation deepened - and the relationship built between the couple and the community became increasingly important.

The couple have assisted in bridging the gap between planning and implementation by providing a voice and ear to both the farmworker community and management. As workers felt free to come to John or Jacolene with their questions and concerns, the realisation grew that the actions taken and policies put in place were keeping them safe, while also serving the survival of the farm.

Thanks to the open line of communication between management and the workers, they can now be found reminding each other to keep themselves protected. John has emphasised during his talks with the workers that everyone needs to be cautious, if not for themselves then for the rest of the people on the farm. John has also taken up the responsibility of transporting the workers to and from town, which must be strictly managed to reduce risks of coronavirus transmission during the ongoing crisis.

Jacolene sums up her motto in life: “It is important to always stay positive regardless of the circumstances”. She adds: “We have been taught to be neat and proud of where we work. A lot is expected from us”. She reflects on the many improvements she has witnessed on the farm and concludes “I am a very proud worker [on this farm] and I think a lot of workers feel this way”.

Self-belief and buy-in

This pandemic will have a massive impact on the current and future global landscape, with particular socio-economic consequences. The success of the government’s emergency regulations is inherently dependent on society’s willingness to implement them. Aside from the standard measures, such as hourly handwashing, constant mask wearing and social distancing, and the implementation of various controls, being able to continue running successful farms requires the buy-in of the workers.

Both John and Jacolene feel that the successful implementation of COVID-19 controls on the Piketberg farm should be attributed to the self-appreciation and self-esteem of the workers; in John’s words: “We cannot expect one to care for others if he does not care for himself”.

The Fund has contributed to these qualities over the years through investment in leadership, adult education, life skills and committee training – and will continue to do so.

In this way, we can continue to bolster the resilience of our workforce in the face of unforeseen circumstances. With their evident commitment to each other, the farm and the community, John and Jacolene serve as an inspiration to everyone around them. The workers on the Fund’s Piketberg farm know their value as individuals and view themselves as a community, with a collective will to protect itself from the threat of the pandemic.

COVID-19 MITIGATION ON THE PIKETBERG FARM – CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

During COVID-19 John and Jacolene have played a pivotal role in mitigating the impact and risks for their fellow farmworkers. A number of underlying factors on this particular farm have contributed to their overall success:

  • The establishment of a culture of open communication between management and workers. This was fostered by worker training in committee procedures and purpose, and functioning of an active workers committee over the years.
  • Cultivating a sense of pride and progress among workers by providing decent living and working conditions, and making ongoing improvements as needed.
  • The identification of the aspirations and passions of individual workers and nurturing and developing these where possible through training and education. Underscoring this through career advancement and promotions within the workforce.
  • Offering peace of mind to farmworkers (a rare quality in this sector) through the provision of healthcare and reputable childcare facilities.
  • Creating a sense of belonging and participation in life and work on the farm, bolstered by the opportunities offered to workers to improve their prospects and quality of life.
  • The willingness and natural ability of both John and Jacolene to embrace and overcome challenges; their affinity for their surroundings and community; and their particular brand of positivity.

For further information on the context of this farm and sector, please see below:

  1. Koronavirus raak ons almal (coronavirus affects us all)
  2. South African deciduous fruit showing continued growth
  3. COVID 19 may affect South Africa pome exports
  4. Will the rising COVID-19 cases negatively affect South Africa summer crop planting activity?
  5. Bergriver Municipality – Socio-economic profile

PDF version: COVID-19 risks to farming communities are real