Writer: Phoebe Calver
Project Manager: Joshua Mann
Schoonbee Landgoed Estates has successfully implemented a corporate structure with family values for the past 45 years, based on a core ethos of trust and respect for both people and nature.
The founder, Gert Stephanus Schoonbee began farming in the Loskop Valley in 1945, long before it becoming an official registered Company in 1971, with the main focus on tobacco, cotton, maize and cash crops.Current operations are spread over 2,500 hectares (ha) and focused in three product areas; grapes, citrus and plains game, and exotic game breeding.
“We used to pack all of our citrus at the local Co-op until 1998, when we began packing for ourselves by packing grapes out of my Grandfather’s garage; a small operation and manageable while we were transitioning,” explains Gert Upton, Head of Sales and Marketing at Schoonbee. “The demand for grapes increased from the Loskop Valley area due to a significant window of opportunity in the local and international markets which helped our growth, and soon a new pack house was needed to meet the demand we were experiencing.”
While monitoring the market developments in the region, there was a clear indication that grape production was producing a higher profit and therefore the expansion really took off. Nearly 20 years on, the expansions are showing no sign of slowing down, with improvements to pack houses and the constant implementation of up-to-date equipment.
Upton elaborates: “It is important to make constant improvements which will have a positive effect on our business, for example we have invested in covering our produce in netting, which is very expensive. However, its positive effects on reducing wind damage, providing hail protection, producing a higher percentage class one fruit and increased pack outs all assist in the sustainable supply of produce to our specific markets.”
Precision farming enables Schoonbee to utilise every inch of land available to it, based on water, soil, workable land, a pack house and cold-room facilities. Now moving forward into its 46th year in the industry, exporting to direct clientele in the overseas market has provided an extra value-added service to clients wanting a direct link to the producer or exporter.
“We support local business first on procurement and then only look beyond if the need cannot be met locally, with 90 percent of our workforce from the surrounding areas; this provides a much more stable family environment and, in turn, happier people,” affirms Upton.
The same approach can be said of the logistics and distribution departments, although Schoonbee has obtained partnerships on a national level. The driving force on performance and efficiency relates back to the Company slogan: ‘Unparalleled Quality’. With an awareness of the short shelf life its produce has, speed is of the essence and therefore speed of service and quality of service must go hand in hand.
There is a high precedent placed on community at Schoonbee Landgoed, particularly when it comes to local projects and it is currently involved in a local grape project called Peace Table Grapes. The project is situated in the village of Mokganyaka in Limpopo, where a large number of Schoonbee employees happen to be situated.
The project which commenced in 2007 consists of 10ha of table grapes and since Schoonbee’s involvement in September, 2015; it has assisted the stakeholders in growing the production from 3,288 cartons in 2015 to a projected 15,000 in 2016.
“Our track record of leveraging off experience and support structures to drive inclusive growth has worked well in this case; we believe this is the optimal way to drive sustainable development for projects such as Peace Table Grapes,” comments Upton.
Not only is the involvement in local projects of high importance, but local retail and wholesale also plays a crucial part in the strategy to ensure heightened brand loyalty within the community, province and country.
Work towards common goals
South Africa’s cultural diversity is well represented on the farm and therefore mutual respect across all cultures is vitally important. In maintaining respect for each person and their culture, they build on a common goal.
“We have approximately 600 permanent employees, which include executives, managers, junior managers, supervisors, security and general workers. In the season depending on the grapes and citrus, we have about 1,200 seasonal workers as well,” Upton adds.
The view since 1998 has been to keep seasonal workers for longer periods of time, grapes and citrus packing alone is nine months of the year, with preparations taking place all year round. This mentality helps maintain better people over a longer period of time. In order to keep good workers, clear outlines are established to highlight what is needed from each employee.
“Once the view is clear, the ‘how’ follows easily,” Upton describes. “Providing a platform for our employees to grow within the Company is crucial in order for them to work towards common goals. We also like to provide extra benefits like a provident fund which can help our employees plan for the future.”
Following on from the theme of enriching its employee’s careers and lives, there is various training programmes that take place in-house. For example, production training and skills transfer is provided in planting, water, sanitation, pest control, weed control, pruning, picking and harvesting.
Upton continues: “We take on interns from institutions such as Lowveld Agricultural College, who start on the farm in order to acquire the practical skills needed. As I mentioned earlier, this involvement includes the Peace Table Grapes project, where actual farming is done and key skills like ownership and responsibility is taught.”
Thinking outside the box
Quality will always define fresh produce more than volume can; however, to achieve the best of both worlds, quality in quantity is needed. For many years Schoonbee’s main focus was honing the skills to produce unprecedented quality; now the focus is on providing that quality in volume.
Upton concludes: “The quality we produce walks hand in hand with our product mix on grapes and citrus, and with both we have the best possible varieties in each window of supply. Therefore, in early, middle and late season we are able to extend packing and provision in all markets.”
Highly skilled employees make up a final integral part of the efforts Schoonbee is making to give it an edge on its peers, and with an innovative structure and ‘out of the box’ thinking, the Company is continuing to come on leaps and bounds in the industry.