Many university students work as waiters or waitresses, bartenders, tutors or even store assistants to earn some pocket money to get them through the month. But a 22-year-old Johan Reyneke from Polkadraai in Stellenbosch chose a different route. He became a farm labourer.
Reyneke (52) says he decided to be a farm labourer to learn the ropes of wine farming so he could be skilled enough to run his own wine farm one day. The strategy paid off, as today he is a wine farmer who is celebrated for his role as a pioneer of organic and bio-dynamic wine-making in South Africa.
Back then he was a student at Stellenbosch University, studying towards a master’s degree in philosophy, specialising in environmental ethics when he decided to work on nearby farms.
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“I started farming in the area that I lived in. I lived in the Polkadraai area of Stellenbosch and there are a number of small vineyards there that are not bona fide or proper farms, if I can call them that. They are two or three hectares big, so they are not big enough to function as farms,” he says.
Reyneke reveals that the people who owned the farms were not farmers themselves and they worked in town.
“The one guy is an economist, and the other had a guesthouse, and another guy was a lawyer. They all had different jobs, but they wanted to live in the winelands. I was part of a team of guys working in their vineyards every day,” he says.
Then one day the landowners told him that it is not beneficial for them to keep farming because they were not making a profit. But if he wanted to take over their vineyards, he could.
“I took over a few of the neighbour’s vineyards with my parent’s vineyards and it collectively gave me enough land to farm and to start a farming business,” he says.
His parents had acquired the small vineyard in their backyard when they bought a house in his matric year. They had moved to Stellenbosch after his father, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, got a post to lecture at the Stellenbosch University in the late 80’s.
Prior to that he had spent his youth in Newlands in Cape Town after his parents moved there from Pretoria when he was only ten years old.
Winery in a cowshed
Reyneke started his farming business around 1998 and 1999, selling grapes to wineries and winemakers. But he soon realised that he was not making enough profit and he was barely surviving.
He decided to make wine.
“I started making my wine in a cowshed, I had two cows there and I had to move them out. Then I changed my farming practices to organic and biodynamic farming. I was approached by a distribution company called Vinimark. They bought equity in the brand and this enabled me to grow the business,” he says.
Reyneke got lucky and borrowed money to buy a farm on the West Coast, which he sold for a profit.
“I took the profit that I made to invest in additional land here in Stellenbosch and then, slowly but surely over the years whenever I could, I would buy one hectare or two hectares of land to increase the footprint of the farm over time,” he says.
30 years later Reyneke has two wine farms and a proper wine cellar and supplies his organic and biodynamic wines to 43 countries around the world.
Reyneke Wines makes four different varietals, namely Chenin Clanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet.
His farm is now about 40 hectares in size and the farm he runs with Vinimark next door is about 80 hectares big. That makes 120 ha of land used to farm organic and biodynamic wine grapes.
Standing out in a crowded market
Starting to farm organically turned out to be one of the best business decisions he ever made.
“When I made a decision to stop using chemicals on the farm and managed to do it successfully it gave me a niche for my grapes and also for my wine. I think that gave me an advantage to get ahead and to get different opportunities,” he shares.
He currently employs about 20 people on his farm and also runs a project called Cornerstone.
“The idea of this project is to help the workers, because they have been excluded from the mainstream economy primarily because of apartheid,” he explains.
“Often wealth is multi-generational, so it is difficult for people to enter the economy from scratch. So, what we try to do is that if people work for us for ten years, we help them to buy a house so that they can then at least own property.”
“We also provide them with retirement annuities, bonds and equity and expose them to international funds so they don’t rely on the government pension. We also offer to help farmworker’s kids with educational funding if they want to go to university, because it is also a problem.”
Reyneke shares that some his toughest lessons thought him that farming is a difficult business. He says he found it extremely challenging to understand the organic way of farming, because there were not many people doing it 30 years ago.
“People were very sceptical of it. There was not a lot of support, so I actually had to go outside of South Africa and speak to people in universities in Germany and Switzerland where they were more advanced in organic farming. I got a lot of advice from them to help my farming journey become a bit easier.”
His advice to aspiring young organic wine farmers is to have a dream and to never give up.
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Sinesipho Tom is an audience engagement journalist at Food for Mzansi. Before joining the team, she worked in financial and business news at Media24. She has an appetite for news reporting and has written articles for Business Insider, Fin24 and Parent 24. If you could describe Sinesipho in a sentence you would say that she is a small-town girl with big, big dreams.