The story of Moolmanshoek – return to Eden

ReStory narrator: Willie Nel

Moolmanshoek is a private game reserve consisting of 3 300ha. It is a National Heritage Site (no 199) and focuses on eco-tourism, livestock (game, cattle & horses) and leadership development (youth).

We arrived on the farm in 1973 and have farmed with cash crops (wheat, maize & sunflower) and livestock (dairy, beef, sheep & wool) over the years. This model remained a marginal  business despite successes.

When I arrived here on 1 February 1973, all of the land was tilled, even though it was marginal soil.

In 1979, the farm produced the highest yield of 830 ton in the Ficksburg co-op area. Sustainability came under threat due to the fact that the soil was marginal and after 12 years of making no profit, we had to stop and reconsider.

We had to produce our own maize for the cows in order to continue profitably. However, because our soils were marginal we could not do so and had to stop milking because it became completely unsustainable/unprofitable.

Visierskerf Dohne Merino stud and also a large commercial flock] In one year we lost 400 sheep to jackal, rooikat and theft. Once again, sustainability had come under threat.

The model that was followed, was not sustainable and it resulted in serious cash flow problems. We decided to implement a change model over three areas, namely the planet (nature), the people and the profit (business). The focus was no longer on profit only.

Nature

We asked the questions “What is the original purpose of this land?” and “What was it created for?”

After evaluating how the land is currently used, we realised that there is a need for a strategy that would align the farming activities with the land’s created purpose.

Moolmanshoek – February 1973: Land is ploughed without contouring
Topsoil erosion: we “exported” the fertile topsoil for many years in the form of muddy water

Sustainability

Traditional farming methods has depleted the topsoil and humus structure of our soils. Continuing with planting and ploughing without re-investing in the soil, has caused this to be unsustainable.  Profitability came under threat and change was inevitable. Restoration and healing of our land was necessary in order for us to continue at Moolmanshoek.

The reconciliation and restoration process begins in 1980…
Building 50 erosion dams to restore the lost topsoil and water
How it looks today (2019)
Without “God’s blanket” – top soil erosion
Today with “God’s Blanket”

Reconciled and restored land returned to its original and natural purpose

1973
Sericea lespedeza (legume/cover crop) has converted very poor soil into humus-rich soil after 30 years

Return to created purpose

The mountain catchment area (sponge) has a purpose of catching, storing and filtering water, and then releasing water slowly throughout the year.

Soil that should never have been ploughed is healed and restored for generations to come. The vlei grass/clover-legume pasture serves as an example.

Restored pastures can be used for a low cost animal production strategy and organic meat (game and beef) is produced. Now we are ‘farming’ with grass and producing clear drinking water – that which the valley and mountains were intended for.

March 2017: Sustainable low cost pasture: this vlei grass/clover pasture is 40 years old and has never been fertilised. Take note: 2016 was the driest in 108 years with 400mm. Our average rainfall is 740mm per year, the last 5 years had an average of 650mm per year and the 5 years before that an average of 895 mm per year.
Moolmanshoek is reconciled and restored as “Eden” – It is a clean water factory, because soil is restored, no topsoil is washed away, the organic blanket serves as a natural filter and water is easily absorbed into the soil.

People

Two leaders for 35 years

In 1973, farm workers were mostly uneducated and untrained. There was a heart transformation in myself and I realised that all people are equal before God. Growing people is also my calling and responsibility.

In 1984, we started a programme to translate this understanding into practice by providing housing with running water and electricity, schooling (a crèche was added to the farm school), adult learning and personal development.

Inspire the people Develop the people Skill the people Demonstrate stewardship

Next generation

Next generation managers

We model and live this “new” understanding, that we are all people equal before God. We also transfer knowledge and skills to the next generation as best as we could.

There is a continuing programme of growth and development for all personnel and this resulted in a new generation with a different mindset with which to tackle the issues of the day.

Business

When we started out in 1973, I was convinced that ownership of land was not negotiable, and that profit should be maximised at all cost. I also thought that I only have to manage my own farm (sole proprietor). Over the years we farmed with cash crops (wheat, maize & sunflower) and livestock (dairy, beef, sheep & wool).

But there came a change in my understanding. I had a heart change and realised that it is not only about myself and about profit. True business is about nature (the planet), people and then profit (business). The synergy of all three creates a truly successful and sustainable operation. We realised, the focus should be on stewardship, not ownership.

The business strategy should align with the created purpose of the mountain catchment area. This meant that the business focus became eco tourism, livestock (game, cattle & horses) and leadership development.

Moolmanshoek business structure

Three separate entities were created: 

  • Moolmanshoek (owner: Nel Family Trust)
  • Wonderwaterkloof Pty Ltd with 5 shareholders
  • Langesnek Pty Ltd with 3 shareholders

These companies are managed as a single business unit and the focus is on stewardship that creates opportunities, otherwise it would not be possible.

A vision that can turn a shed into a lodge (eco-tourism)

Decisions made: Three scenarios

Scenario 1: Commercial farming before the change strategy was implemented

  • Loss per hectare (not sustainable)
  • 26 permanent position

Scenario 2: Cattle farming

  • R700 per hectare (sustainable)
  • 5 permanent positions

Scenario 3: Current model

  • R900 per hectare (sustainable)
  • 30 Permanent positions

There has been an economic effect with multiplier and trickle-down effects on the Eastern Free State economy and community. During 2016 visits to Moolmanshoek, there were 2 300 cars and busses with a total of 9 000 people including overseas guests. Furthermore, the equine facility not only earns an income, but also has a positive economic impact on Lesotho, Mozambique and the Wild Coast with our eco-tourism activities there.

Personal vision

I have handed over the daily operations of Moolmanshoek to the next generation. My passion now is to work with others to:

  • Serve landowners and food producers
  • Contribute towards the production of affordable and healthy food
  • Promote conservation
  • Apply and teach the principles of stewardship of land
  • Support individual farmers on their journey to profitability and sustainability
  • Share understanding and personal journey with others

Leadership Development Centre (LDC)

The first camps were held at Moolmanshoek in 1974. Since then it has been an ongoing concern and has gained much traction since 1997.

The camps held at our Moolmanshoek LDC have grown much over the last decade and currently we influence between 1000-1500 next generation leaders annually.

We had the biggest group yet in 2017, when we hosted Grey College of Bloemfontein’s Grade 8 camp, 281 young men attended!

With all the initiatives done through our LDC, our hope remains that every person will grow in their understanding of selfless love and go and practice it, whether it be in the classroom, at school, at home or in a marriage.

Conclusion

My experience is that everyone in Africa is searching for solutions or alternatives in agriculture. South Africa has its own unique challenges due to its history. However, I believe that we all need to recognise the inherent value and purpose of both our people and our land.

My heart’s cry is that our journey and experiences here at Moolmanhoek, together with the other farms that are visited, will contribute something to finding a way forward.

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