The Hope Dossier #1 | White farmers growing young black farmers


The Hope Dossier #1 | White farmers growing young black farmers

In the first of a series of profiles on extraordinary people building South Africa, ANNELIESE BURGESS speaks to ex-dairy farmer Judy Stuart, who has changed the lives of hundreds of youngsters who dream of a career in agriculture.


JUDY STUART is one of South Africa’s most revered dairy farmers, contributing to farming publications and representing the country at global dairy farming and agricultural innovation conferences.

Fifteen years ago, the seed of an idea germinated in a conversation she had with some young schoolboys at an agricultural youth show. 

“They were from Zakhe Agricultural College and had made it to the National Agricultural Youth Show because they were so good and passionate about their animals. I wanted to know how they saw their future. Were they planning to go to university or Cedara College of Agriculture after they matriculated?

“No, they said. They didn’t have the money or the right subjects to do that. So I wanted to know if they would at least try to find work on farms. And they told me, you know what, Judy, as school leavers, we are completely unemployable. No one will take us.

“And I was brought face to face with a reality I had never considered. So much talent was going to waste because kids did not have the means to enter the farming sector. And I thought, ‘these kids have the passion, and I know farmers, there must be something we can do'."

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Judy approached some farmers. And being the legend she is, she knew many. Her idea was that a farmer would take on these youngsters as apprentices at minimum wage. “All they needed was an opportunity to learn. I knew their passion for farming was going to make them different. They did not need to be taught. All they needed was to be put in a situation where they could learn from farmers and farm workers.

“I found three farmers who were prepared to help and another 20 or 30 who thought it was a terrible idea,” she laughs.

“At that point, I was not yet running an organisation. I was trying to help three kids. But their friends phoned me the next year, and I helped them. And the year after that more phoned me. And after a few years, I decided to close down my dairy because I couldn't do both.”

Judy's concept for training and growing young farming talent is ambitious. She knows that for these young people to step into excellence and live fulfilled lives, they need more than just hands-on farming knowledge.

“I think it is essential that young people go overseas to get exposed to the broader world. Once they have done their 24-month apprenticeship on a South African farm, we try to give them a year on a farm overseas."

The year the Future Farmers Foundation started, eight apprentices  travelled to Germany to complete one-year internships.

“One of our lads, Sifiso Nthisa, did so well,” she says, “that the German sponsor extended his visa. There were no other workers on that farm. There was just him and his German boss, who also happened to be the local mayor. This young South African lad with no tertiary education managed a Holstein dairy of more than 1,000 cows.”


You can hear the pride in her voice. She is sitting in her bakkie on the farm in Howick. I can imagine her in her trademark khaki shirt and trousers. Sensible shoes. Sensible hairstyle. And the extraordinary just-get-on-with-it approach that has seen her grow this remarkable organisation that has changed the lives of thousands of young South Africans.

Future Farmers grew by word of mouth. “Young people seek us out from all over the country. They hitchhike from Cape Town to Howick. Not for a job. Just for an interview to join Future Farmers.”

And in those interviews, Judy looks for only one thing. Passion. She tries to drill down to what excites them because if she can find what they love, she knows she can fan that flame.

“I ask them about their dream job. What is it they want to do? Is it chickens or pigs, or do they want to milk cows or work with beef cattle or plant things? And if you know what to look for, you will find their particular passion. One will say I love chickens because my grandma used to have chickens. Or another will tell you how he used to milk cows in the morning before going to school. Another says she has always had a dream to be able to grow flowers. These are exactly the people we need on our farms. It's incredible, the potential we have. They are so smart and there are so many of them.”

Future Farmers now has close to 4,000 people on its database. More than 200 of them have done internships on farms in Australia and the US. According to Judy, there is an insatiable demand for Future Farmer interns in the US. Unfortunately, changes in Australian immigration laws have made it difficult for South Africans to go there on internships. Judy is now planning to expand the internships to New Zealand and Ireland. “The foundation’s goal is to help young people to live their dreams of becoming commercial farmers,” she says.

Soft-skills mentoring is an integral part of the programme. “Many of our mentors are older Future Farmers who have returned to help. The farmer provides the opportunity; we provide the mentoring. We assist with practical advice and coaching. We want to develop the necessary life skills for them to deal with challenges independently and in their way. For some of these youngsters, it is the first time they have set foot on a commercial farm."

Judy has many success stories, underlining, she says, the incredible potential of so many young people in South Africa. 

Like the poultry worker admitted to the Future Farmers programme after Judy spotted that passion for chickens.

“As a poultry worker, you are invisible, you are nobody," she explains. “But after going through her apprenticeship, we sent her to a huge egg production operation in the American Midwest. Busi was put in charge of a unit of half a million layers, and she was so good at her job that she smashed the company's production record." 

Like Siphiwe Mbongwa, who completed his internship at Tong Park Piggery in Queensland, Australia, which wants him to return to train its staff.

Or Fortune Mdluli, who completed four years of apprenticeship on two golf courses in Washington, DC. During his internships, Mdluli was singled out for his humility, attitude and good South African work ethic, and today he is the manager of the New South Wales Country Club, an elite golf club in Australia.

Or Tsikelelo Baleni, who interned on a dairy farm in Australia and now manages a top dairy operation in South Africa. Or Boysi Ngubelo, who did his international stint on a cattle ranch in Australia; he now runs his own business and is a qualified drone operator.

There are hundreds of stories like these. And it fills her with pride.

Accordance Mathebula, a Future Farmer Apprentice with a passion for flowers.
Accordance Mathebula, a Future Farmer Apprentice with a passion for flowers.

One of the reasons for the initiative’s success is that it receives generous donations. The Underberg Farmers’ Association is one of the donors. The interns pay this money back from their monthly wages while working overseas, enabling the foundation to send the next intern. “It means that a single donation will be recycled for years, sending as many as two interns per year,” says Judy.

The key to the foundation’s success is that all successful applicants are placed in areas they love in the agricultural sector. 

Future Farmers have interned on cotton, racehorse, dairy, cut flowers and cheese farms in the primary and secondary agricultural sectors. 

The foundation recently opened an office in Paarl. “It's an important agricultural hub and our office is run there by an extraordinary young woman who went through the Future Farmers programme and is now helping to grow more young farmers."

Judy is optimistic that they will reach other provinces in time. She says the mission is to continue providing opportunities for passionate young people who cannot enter the farming sector.

“This is how we build South Africa. And reduce inequality. With time, effort, passion and commitment. One person at a time. One story at a time." 

♦ VWB ♦

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