From printers’ ink to a sweet deal

By Garth Johnstone

Don’t be surprised if you recognise the faces pictured above – you should. Sisters Phillippa Gordon Lycett (left) and Caroline Richter ran and edited The Meander Chronicle newspaper for 14 years.

That’s a long time to be at the helm of any publication, but in March they signed off on their final paper and handed over the reins to yours truly and Nerissa Card.

A part of their motivation was to move on to a new challenge, taking over what the family calls its “legacy project” – continuing the work done by parents Julian and Jenny Gordon on Overstone Farm, near Wartburg.

Succession plans

Realising the need for succession plans, Julian felt it was time Phillippa and Caro became involved in managing the sugar cane farm.

“A farmer never retires,” says Phillippa, “but, with brother Andrew emigrating, decisions were going to have to be made.

“Our question to dad was, ‘If we said we could manage a farm, what would you say?’. He said, ‘You could start tomorrow’.”

Continuity for staff

Julian was also anxious for continuity for his staff, many of whom live on the land with family and some of whom have been working there since before Phillippa and Caro were born.

Making the transition has involved a high level of organisation, as both currently live in Hilton – Caroline at Hilton College, where her husband teaches, and Phillippa in the village.

In the district, the family farm started with Aberdour, purchased in 1856. Overstone was added in 1863 by Julian’s grandparents. The Gordons remain very much present in the area and describe the District Road 82 as “the dodgy D82”, as it is full of Gordon relatives, and one German family.

The Nguni cattle on the farm are a favourite of Julian’s. They are inquisitive and seemed to enjoy our attention.

Julian farmed from a young age, working for Natal Estates on the North Coast. Later, while Phillippa, Caroline and Andrew were growing up, the family lived in the Free State for nine years, where Julian farmed wheat and fruit.

“Growing up we didn’t know there was another kind of life. We didn’t know some grown-ups went to work in an office.”

Of their dad, they say: “Over the course of our lives we just enjoyed being with dad while he farmed. We just went along for the ride in the back of the bakkie! In our new role we have had to persuade him to take on the role of teacher. He has an incredible amount of knowledge in his head about farming, the land and the people.”

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Their new role doesn’t entail as much farming, they point out, as it does farm management.

“We are responsible for information gathering, we need to get familiar with every contour of the farm,” says Caro.

“We’re familiarising ourselves with the monthly estimates, in close consultation with dad and, more importantly, our contractor, who is responsible for the harvesting, and milling logistics,” she says.

“Probably one of the most important aspects of our management role is working with the staff, getting to know them better and trying to get to grips with a better form of isiZulu!”

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Julian, who now lives in Howick, is always just a call away if they need advice and still visits the farm as often as possible.

“We have a good network of people who have helped us with this transition and we have attended open days hosted by Sasri (the South African Sugar Research Institute), for example.

“Our staff have been extremely helpful, guiding us generously in the right direction. They know their jobs well and have built a very productive relationship with Dad over many years,” says Caro.

Farm-stay

The farm also offers farm-stay accommodation and a functions’ venue, which forms part of their farming portfolio and provides more employment opportunities. Housekeeping, reservations, gardening, plumbing and other accommodation chores involved in running the seven units must be taken care of.

“For us, the joy of coming here far outweighs any of the pressures of commuting or making these changes. For our children, this is also their happy place,” says Phillippa.

The sisters have whole-heartedly committed to life on the farm and a bright future for all its inhabitants.

● On December 2, Overstone is hosting The Summertime Feels, a relaxing afternoon of music with Lara Kirsten, St John Haw and Tanya Nicolson.
The venue, about 15 minutes from Wartburg, is a beautifully repurposed old barn, surrounded by lawns. Guest are invited to bring along a picnic, drinks and a chair. Tickets are R100 each (children under 12 get in free).

For more information, contact Tanya on 071 353 9539 or Phillippa on 083 290 1153.

Co-ordinates to Overstone Farm: -29.365575, 30.762536.