From Corporate to Crops

Having been raised on a farm was, for most part, nothing short of a dream. Waking up before the sun to greet the animals, riding the fences on horseback every weekend and taking long mud baths with my favourite pet-pals was a lifestyle that only farm children can relate to. Farm-life is, however, not only the idyllic picture that I have of my childhood. We get to follow the journey of Trevor Bannatyne, who uprooted his family from the comforts of city life in Pretoria to settle on a farm in KwaZulu-Natal, where their goal is to rear animals ethically and produce the best artisan pork products available.

Trevor grew up in Witbank and went to a boarding school in Pretoria. His wife, Mignon, was a farm girl who grew up on the farm neighbouring their current home. She went to boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, after which she studied at Stellenbosch University before moving to Pretoria to “stooge” at an all-girls’ school, converting her science degree into a teaching qualification. After qualifying with a multimedia degree, Trevor worked as a programmer and later a business analyst for Citadel, a financial company based in Pretoria. “I loved the problem solving nature of the job, but emotionally, I was withering away, which was tough,” he remembers. At the time, Mignon was working as a teacher at Tyger Valley College and, as Trevor puts it, “was full-time pregnant.”

Having a toddler and with another baby on the way, they had some big life decisions to make. “I could either travel to Johannesburg in search of the big bucks, so that Mignon could spend some time at home with the kids, or we could purchase a pig farm from my father-in-law,” Trevor tells us. So, naturally, they bought the farm. The only problem was that they knew nothing about farming! “We had seen a TV show or two, so we thought that we were basically over-qualified. Turns out, though, that in order to sell the things that you grow, you need to know a little about growing them. And butcher them. And package them. And deliver them,” he laughs. Trevor began planning methodically, with spreadsheet upon spreadsheet, business plans and forecasts, contingency plans and pros and cons listed. He structured the gestation periods and the birthing rates, which linked to the recycle rates and then, in theory, they were ready to farm. But, alas, it did not go as smoothly as they had planned. They soon realised that farming is hard, much harder than they could ever have imagined. “Add a drought and all your savings and you have the makings of a good drama,” he says.

 

The transition from big city life to a farming lifestyle was hard, but not impossible. While they were trying to settle in, Trevor once spent 17 days on the farm without leaving. “I was counting, because I almost went mad. In Pretoria, everything is close and easy, but on the farm it was all so different.” For the first year, Trevor would leave the farm every day to feel productive, but when he worked out the cost of a daily drive to town, he began to “hoard” things so that he would not have to go into town at all. “I soon realised, however, that stockpiling plumbing fittings would only result in me having a hundred of the wrong fittings.” Trevor explains that the city offered pressures of its own, which were mostly consumer-driven or manufactured by them. On the farm, however, those things seem insignificant and the pressures and stresses are far greater and seem much more real. “Eventually you succumb to the idea that some things are outside your control and, as a control freak, this was the hardest lesson for me,” he recalls.

Even though they had started out with very little knowledge about farming, they knew what they did not want. Trevor says that they would rather not farm than farm a factory and that they had therefore decided on ethically-raised, free-range meat. “At the time we only had pigs as a reference. Knowing what we know now about piggeries, feedlots and chicken houses, I’m glad that we drew the line.” Referring to the practices of different feedlots regarding vaccinations and the use of hormones to artificially boost weight gain in the animals, Trevor makes it clear that he and Mignon don’t agree with these methods. “I think that if people were aware of what went into their meat and how the animal spent its life, fewer would focus purely on the price,” Trevor says.

It was only while doing research on free-range farming so that they could weigh up the pros and cons that they began to realise that not all farming worked this way and how rare it actually was. They consider themselves fortunate to have been able to decide how they would like to farm, as most farmers don’t have any choice in the matter. “Is sounds counter-intuitive, but most farmers continue a business that they inherited or one that has evolved to the point where the way that they farm is objectively not in the best interests of the animal or the environment,” Trevor says. They also believe in having transparent relationships with clients, connecting the consumer to the animals and the farmers who produce their food. “Facebook and social media enable us, more than ever, to be able to forge a meaningful relationship with the community that we produce food for.”

In the early stages of the business, Trevor used to put together order forms for people to fill out, but found that no one was particularly fond of this method. Eventually, they managed to put their store online. Their business grew into a complete online deli which, according to Trevor, is still in infancy. “Opening the online store has truly changed our business and how we operate,” he says. “Cutting back on the number of animals was the best decision that we have ever made. Now we just have to wait and see if we can hit the critical mass that allows us to thrive.”

They deliver to Ballito between two and four times a month, depending on the number of orders that they receive. A delivery schedule can be found on the website so that people can decide when it would best suit them to have their produce delivered. Trevor says that they hope for an increase in demand so that they can make it a standard weekly delivery. “Having travelled this road, we have also realised that we can’t be everything to everyone. We are currently working on making our website infrastructure, farm butchery and transport network available to other small farmers.” The idea of this is to create a link between passionate farmers and the consumers who care about how what they buy is produced.  

“So far the concept of buying ethically reared specialty meats online has not really taken off as yet, but if it does and our business becomes profitable, we will have achieved one of our wildest dreams,” he ends. After uprooting his family and moving them to another province, to a job that he had never done before and doing it in a manner that had not yet even been proven to work, was considerably harder than Trevor could ever have imagined, but it has been all worth it and, if given the opportunity, they would do it all again!

web | www.Bannatynes.co.za

facebook | @ BannatynesFarm

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