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Workers restore farm into land of milk and honey

Written by Samona Murugan
Catherine Chiloane has moved from being a landless farmworker to being a part of land barons.

In 1997, Chiloane, along with 247 other workers at Coromandel farm, faced a threat of losing her job and her home as the farm collapsed.

Coromandel Farm administrative manager Sipho Ngwenyama takes stock of the farm’s livestock with the help of fellow farm workers turned owners.The farm’s future looked bleak as milk and maize prices dropped and cash flow dried up. "I was really scared we would lose everything," Chiloane recalls. "Thank God it didn't end up that way."

The iconic 5 800 hectare estate farm which lies in the foothills between Lydenburg and Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, belonged to the late industrialist Sydney Press who assembled the estate from 24 smaller farms in the 1970s.

The Coromandel Estate includes an operational mixed agriculture business and boasts waterfalls, a 300 hectare fully stocked game reserve, stone built stables, 24 mangers' residences, two employee villages, a school, self-catering tourist accommodation, fly fishing, horse riding and an airstrip. The estate also houses a modern dairy with a total herd of 350 prime Holstein cows, 750 hectares of irrigated lands growing maize and beans, 30 hectares of orchards bearing peaches, nectarines and berries together with a packing facility and 1 240 hectares of dry agricultural lands and 1400 hectares grazing and feedlot facilities.

After the farm went into liquidation in 2000, workers on the farm formed a collective to buy it. The workers secured a R11.5 million grant from the Mpumalanga Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Administration and the Land Bank loaned them an additional R11 million. They offered the Press family R15.65-million for the land and fi assets. Administrative Manager Sipho Ngwenyama, says they used the rest of the money to buy movable assets and dairy cows and for maintenance.

In 2002 , the workers, trading as the Coromandel Farmers Trust, fi took ownership of the farm. With help from the Eskom Development Foundation, the workers restored the farm, making it viable again.

The aim was to secure employment and accommodation for people born and bred in Lydenburg who had worked and lived on the farm for more than 40 years.

But the cooler and milking parlour grew increasingly old, guzzled electricity and did not function at optimal levels, making conditions difficult for workers. The milk would go sour and this had an adverse effect on the dairy’s profits.

After hearing of the Eskom Development Foundation’s call for applications to assist various projects, Coromandel management approached Eskom’s provincial office asking for help to renovate the dairy. The Foundation heeded Coromandel’s call for help and granted the funding, which was used to renovate the dairy’s floors, paving, painting and ceiling in the cooling room. Workers also bought an 18 point milking parlour and an additional 4000 litre computerised cooling tank and used the rest of the money for maintenance of the Dairy faciliites.

“With the old cooler and milking parlour, the dairy had difficulty producing enough milk to sustain us but we now make about 14 litres of milk per cow, per day,” says Ngwenyama. He adds that the dairy looks much more professional than before and the morale and productivity of staff is at an all-time high. “The more people are employed, the more the levels of poverty drop,” he says.

In 2011, the farm won the Agricultural Category of the Small Business Competition hosted by Eskom the Development Foundation.

According to Foundation chief executive officer Haylene Liberty, “The Foundation’s grant to Coromandel dairy farm indicates how strategic assistance has helped a fledgling agri-business expand its productivity output and create new jobs and developing the community at large.”

Chiloane, the mother of three who had been a casual worker, was reinstated full-time when the collective took over the farm. "I can look after my children now and for this I am very grateful.

“We never dreamed of owning this farm. Now we aren't just ordinary people staying here. It belongs to us."