Twenty years ago, when Elize Lambrechts was appointed general manager of the three Boland grape farms (Elim, Lentelus and Môreson) making up Verdorsniet Boerdery, she was the only woman in that position and today, she is still the only female grape farm manager in South Africa.
Elize Lambrechts (photo: Carmé Naudé, Hortgro)
On the 53 ha of their production units, the important work of harvest preparation is currently underway before the vineyards start flowering. Their harvest – a lot of seedless red like Crimson, plus seedless white and black - is a bit later (beginning January) than most of the surrounding Hex River Valley grape farms, in order to follow seamlessly on the earlier grape farms in Piketberg of grower-exporter Suiderland Plase, whom they supply.
Elize had grown up on Saffier, a neighbouring farm, helping her mother pick grapes when she was a child. She didn’t finish school but she learned to drive trucks and tractors, working herself up from team leader to supervisor to pack shed manager. She has the practical experience of every single facet of grape farming that surely very few other farm managers possess.
When the owner, Louis de Kock, initially asked whether she would be interested in the manager position, her first reaction was negative. “I couldn’t believe that I could do it, but later a truck driver on the farm said to me: ‘try it, give it a chance’. So I did.”
Proving herself in a man’s world
Elize attended every course on grape production that she could (many of them being the first woman graduate), reading up after each meeting with her (invariably white, male) peers from other grape farms so that she would always know what she was talking about.
At her recent acceptance speech of the Hortgro advanced agricultural worker award, she said that often in her career, visitors to the farm would refuse to believe that she could be the manager of a successful export grape farm.
No prejudice from Suiderland Plase, though: from them Elize only experienced respect right from the start. “No-one ever raised an eyebrow when Louis appointed a woman of colour to be his farm manager. Suiderland has always involved me in operations, like any other farm manager.”
She notes: “It’s been a difficult two years in the grape industry and it has really helped to be part of a large group like Suiderland.”
Over the past few years seasonal workers from other parts of Southern Africa have started working in De Doorns, and Elize has had to deal with the chauvinism of some men who don’t easily accept the authority of a woman. “At the induction I make it clear: I will respect your culture if you can respect my authority as your manager.”
She takes particular interest in the careers of young people, not only on the farm but in the broad community, helping with college admissions and bursary applications, noting with satisfaction that she has helped find employment for many, within farming and often outside farming.
Elize Lambrechts with Olivia Tutani, Thobeka April and Charmain Snyers (photo: Carmé Naudé, Hortgro)
“People and soil go hand-in-hand”
Grape farming is not easy – Elize tells how she has shed tears as unseasonal rain destroyed a harvest – but she is driven by a passion for people and a passion for agriculture which, she notes, are inextricable. “People and the soil go hand-in hand. I tell my staff not to underestimate their worth. They should feel honoured to work in agriculture. Everyone needs us, from the president to the poorest man on street.”
In May this year her life took an unexpected detour when a car accident cost the life of her son, Ruan Lambrechts, a student in agriculture himself and heir to his mother’s twin passions for people and agriculture. His passing temporarily robbed her of the joy she feels in her work – “I saw his face everywhere on the farm.”
She likes to credit the unwavering support of her employers and the De Doorns community as well as the South African Table Grape Industry, who kept telling her that the grape industry needed her, for helping her to pick up her role after an absence of four months, right in time for the start of a new grape season.
“I can’t stay away from agriculture. When I’m talking about farming I become passionate.”
Her eventual dream, she says, would be a piece of land of her own (the land she always thought she’d leave to her late son) which would have a double function as commercial production unit and as an agricultural practical training site for students.
“I have agriculture in my blood. I’m so proud of it.” You can see why the industry wants to hold on to the passion of Elize Lambrechts.
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