Travelling deep into the South of Johannesburg to go and find the farm behind Die Melkbos goats dairy had me reflecting so much on Barry Sergeant and my Ficksburg visits to Beatrix Mountain Goats. Perhaps an ironic way to begin this story, yet poignant.
For years the Beatrix Mountain dairy was the only goat’s dairy we stocked at Organic Emporium.
There wasn’t anybody doing true free roaming goats like Barry Sergeant did that compared for me. The shepherd who literally walked those goats through the Witteberge mountains each day, letting them roam and graze on the fynbos of the area.
Remembering that first walk with Barry and my children at sun rise up the Witteberge mountains with goats nibbling on fynbos is always bitter sweet. The texture of those visits, the long chats over a good bottle of red with Barry, his insistence that I always cooked for him when I went, the razor -sharp clarity of his mind and the calibre of his conversation and wit, memories I treasure.
When I think of Barry, I remember waiting outside our cabin on that first bitter July morning for him to come through the trees. He told us that we’d first hear the sound of the bells from the goats, a gentle melody in harmony with the rising sun which announced what would be the tone of that entire walk, an enveloping sense of peace.
He told us that when they came through the trees past the cabin we were in, we’d need to quickly join them as the goats move on quite quickly.
Still nothing prepared us for the sight of him with his broad hat flanked by those goats coming around that corner, a sight of poetry in motion whose vision etches into memory and stays there forever.
At his funeral I listened to people describe his reputation as a journalist as the ‘hyena’ which he was in that world. I listened to people describe that hyena from the past, while sitting in the beauty of the knowledge that I had been blessed to have met another side to him, equally as compelling and impactful, I met the shepherd in him.
He had a razor -sharp disdain for dishonesty as much as a nose for sniffing it out. He had much as a crystal-clear respect for things that held integrity which shaped his career as one of SA’s top investigative journalists. The same principles informed his farming in his later years. He held me in regard for my refusal to compromise on the calibre of produce I wanted for the store, we shared an intolerance for things not real and a love for strength in all character, which gave us a kindred sense of connection.
So, it wasn’t all that easy driving to visit a new goat farm, having to acknowledge that Beatrix dairy from Barry was no more, to remember what we had lost and the new chapter we needed to begin.
Equally, it hasn’t been easy writing this article because of my last conversation with him, two days before he departed this world. I told him that I was coming down to see him to discuss having a cheese counter in the new store. Ever ratty with us having to sell his cheese in plastic, he was impatient with how long my growth was taking into a space where we could have one, and in our last chat, I arranged to visit him the following week and he was excited about the new store.
I also told him that I was over his excuses about doing yoghurt and wanted that resolved. He was upbeat, excited and his last words were, ‘I can’t wait to see you.’ When the call came that he had rather suddenly passed over and that thee trip would never happen, I was gutted, the world went grey for a while.
Like Keith Harvey, Barry had been a mentor and somebody I learnt so much from and looked up to. When they leave its unbearable for a time especially when it is before we get to realise a long-term dream.
Funerals of beginnings that never began always seem to be the hardest.
Sitting here in the new store that required a rather long walk and not being able to share it with them, a sad place I needed to reflect on while driving to the South to visit the farm that would be replacing him.
Driving there though, I was doubtful that any goat farm could in any way come close to what Barry created in the Witterberge mountains, in Ficksburg.
How was any grazing terrain in the South of Johannesburg going to compare to what we had with Barry, with the Beatrix goats getting a large part of their daily nourishment off fynbos on their morning walk? I clung onto the fact that Henrietta who had loved Barry as a long-term family friend and who owned the Beatrix farm, had recommended this one, as my comfort and – onward drove.
It was in that frame of mind and spirit that I arrived at a part of the South I have never ventured into.
The South to me always associated with dryness and short shrub, yet the journey took me into a vast agricultural area I hadn’t anticipated and to a set of un-assuming gates.
That’s when I first met Terry, who opened for us. I had taken my daughter and a friend of hers from school. She wasn’t too charmed that a play date involved one of Mum’s farm visits, yet there we were.
We were ushered into a dining-room and into the soul of Terry’s partner Lida’s, tranquil, womb-like kitchen.
A kitchen that spoke of tradition and timelessness. From the embroidered table cloth to the solid wooden table holding the centre, there was such a homeliness about it.
Farm kitchens always have that, they hold the soul of the home.
As I took in the colour purple on the fabric of curtains, I thought of the purple in their logo and had to ask what the significance was of it. Lida, delighted with the question, told us that it’s her favourite colour and the one that keeps her most connected to her spirit. The first whisper of who Lida is.
The girls were immediately offered a glass of milk and as I started allowing the strong maternal energy to start seeping into me, I realized that it took me back to that feeling of care I always felt in my Irish grandmother’s kitchen as a child. Being given a glass of milk in an Irish home as a child is customary.
That was my introduction to what the dominant philosophy behind the rearing of these goat’s is, Lida’s very marked maternal energy, the flame burning from the core of her spirit. That first sense carried through our entire visit and describes her relationship to her goats, she is their Mother, she is a nurturer.
Taking this all in, I thought about how Barry to his goats was a shepherd, he was a patriarch where Lida’s matriarchal energy here, a defining difference between them.
When I do any farm visit, my first interest before I walk the soil, meet the animals and get into that detail is to find out who the farmers are. I need to get a sense of their philosophy, why they do what they do and the meaning they ascribe to their work. That’s what we are connecting to first and foremost and informs what I’m going to find on the farm.
There we were, all seated around the soul of the house, the dining-room table in the kitchen meeting the very soft energy of both Terry and Lida. There is a marked gentleness and humanness about these two people that instantly makes you feel contained, safe and held, as matriarchal energy does.
As with all special farm visits, we start at the most important part of the conversation, what is their history, how did they come to be on the land and how did they end up farming goats?
It is always in listening to how farmers tell this story that I really meet them. It is in the first few minutes of that conversation that I know whether I have found something special or not, it’s all in how they decide to tell their story and what they most want to tell you first.
I’ll never forget one particular heinous farm visit – they do happen – they’re just never the ones you hear about. I had travelled some obnoxious distance for hours, gotten lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere with two very ratty girls (my daughter once again and a friend), only to have the farmer go straight into what price he thought he could get for his product and discuss financial implications. My spirit sunk to the floor because I knew this wasn’t going to go well. As we walked the farm, that absence of a deep-seated philosophy was there in a series of compromises that made us unable to stock their produce. Visits like that over 9 years have helped me to define that process that always occurs when we find something special.
As Terry started talking about the farm and how they got into goat farming, that beautiful feeling of finding something special rose, it almost feels like a candle gently lit inside and the first feel of the warmth of flame, it’s a feeling I now trust so I settled into it, at peace.
These are good people and there is a story here.
My work then is to let the story uncurl because it is this story – and these people that we’re choosing to nourish us. It all starts with this.
Terry originally from Zimbabwe and Lida from the Free State, moved onto the farm 14 years ago.
The idea to farm first planted itself as seed in Terry’s mind one day while he was floating the floors and a chicken ran past. He kept that chicken and ended up investing in 80 layers thereafter. That grew until they ended up with 1250 hens.
As Terry talks about their journey with hens, a something in the room changes.
There are no chickens on the farm so it was clear the story didn’t end well and yet there was something to the fact that this was how Terry wanted to start telling their story.
Lida’s energy suddenly becomes a marked presence in the room as well as Terry’s protection of her.
It is the second time I am now introduced to the exquisite sensitivity of her maternal care that I am later to meet in her relationship with her goats.
The chickens all got a disease and had to be slaughtered. There is a palpable pain and wound now with us in the room as that part of their story is told. Lida was devastated and it’s here that you meet her deep sensitivity towards how animals are cared for. An animal is no different to a child to her, she is unable to cope with the death of her animals or animal suffering.
She never did recover from losing so many chickens and never wanted to farm them again. Their death and that episode was too painful for her. It’s at that point that their philosophy whispers and announces itself.
Lida’s philosophy of caring for animals like children – is the over-arching philosophy behind the goat dairy.
They are not just animals she farms, her relationship to them is more than that.
At a later stage, they then brought 2 goats. The first goat they named Angel, the reason for the name of that cheese, the second called Tinkerbell. This too an introduction to the power of their names, to the individuality of each goat to Terry and Lida.
Each goat on that farm has a name. Once we got into the farm and I saw them interacting with their goats and calling each one by an individual name and the goats responding to it, the relevance of how they introduced their story grew in potency.
I’ve never seen anything like it. These goats are their children, I realised, as I watched goat after goat come up to them for individual attention. You very quickly got to understand each individual’s particular quirk, never have I met goats that affectionate or that trusting and comfortable with humans.
Goats are goats. I’ve always admired their cockiness, their character always reminds me of Jack Russells actually. They’re proud and obstinate, cheeky and naughty, playful and will eat your shoes and laundry the moment you turn your back, and care rocks for getting into trouble. You forgive them anything and they seem to know that you will. I’ve never met them as affectionate animals necessarily, but on this farm I did. The nurtured goat is a deeply affectionate animal.
We walked that farm and I was then further taken aback by what their grazing consisted of. I was concerned that in this region, the outdoor grazing would require much supplementation and that’s where I get worried because that’s going to generally mean pellets with GM corn and soy and more.
This farm is prolific with medicinal weeds and good grazing shrub which the goats feast on. Amongst them – plantain, dandelion, prickly pears, blue gum (leaves and the branches are eaten), cancer bush, stinging nettle, spekboom and Hawthorne berries!
Veldt grass and leaves are cut and baled for them to get through Winter.
Lida also feeds the goats kefir made with their own milk, Lida says that ever since they started including this in their diet, they have no ailments whatsoever and became so much stronger and healthier.
The supplementation feed they need to keep nutrients up is the very same one Barry used, sans nonsense and given to them only at milking time as ‘snackies’. “So that their milking glands are stimulated by a nice meal”, Lida explains, with a maternal glow.
The majority of their diet though is coming off their grazing terrain.
When it comes to birthing time, Lida explains that milk production is obviously less because it is time for the kids to get the bulk of the milk.
Lida leaves Mother and kid for two months before she’ll take the milk. For 3 days after birth she insists that they are left alone for 3 days uninterrupted with infrared lights to help them with their bonding. For Lida, that is a non-negotiable despite their loss of income over that period. “I won’t take a drop off milk from the Mother over this time”, she says fiercely. I’m reminded of how there is little stronger – than the force of maternity. I found that remarkable – those are the reasons we pay higher prices for dairy like this and the reason – we must.
These goats are so happy, so relaxed and so trusting.
I left contented, that though I’ll ever miss Barry and the shepherd in him and the Beatrix Mountain Goats, I have found something equally special, though utterly just different here.
Lida and Terry aren’t shepherds here, they’re parents.
When you buy their dairy, you’re buying their philosophy of love, care and respect for sentient beings.
I have never seen children happily drink down goat’s yoghurt like my daughter and her friend did on that visit afterwards. Like their philosophy – the taste is gentle and soft.
The nurturing theme continued, back in the kitchen after the walk, I watched a family drive in with a baby.
Lida greeted them like family but actually they were customers.
She told us about her journey with them with an exceptionally ill premature baby. This baby could not handle cow’s dairy and had problems breast feeding. The family and baby are ushered to that dining-room table while Lida fusses about the baby while enquiring about her progress.
The baby had been losing weight and weak and this particular family, like so many others had started turning to Lida’s goat’s milk as a last resort when it all turned around. The baby started picking up weight and stopped being ill once they switched her onto this milk.
I sat watching this exchange, in awe and reverence, witness to the difference people like Terry and Lida make. I contrasted the reality of people’s lives being shaped by aisles, professional anonymity and modern-day retail where the connection to a real farmer is severed, barely even there at all anymore. Yet here as if back in time, is a farm where families drive in to meet the farmer, sit around her table and buy her milk, which saved their child.
I was reminded again as I always am on my farm visits – that there is nothing more important to society than our farmers.
Farmers – like these that make the difference between whether we are healthy or not and whether the natural systems they serve as custodians of have any longevity for future generations.
Farmers should be at the centre of any thriving community and yet in our current food system, this isn’t the case, the retailer is the central piece, the farmers hidden from view and only there to serve an industrial system that devalues their worth. Once the farmer is not the central part of community, disease will flourish as the connection to nature is severed and in that gap, the modern-day efficiencies of industrial food make their profits at the expense of the health of the whole.
I was clear once again watching this exchange that there can be no healthy society until we put family farmers back into the centre.
‘This milk saved our child’s life’, the mother said to me. Silently, I thought to myself – it is Lida’s maternal spirit here and the strength of it that is responsible for all of this, as much as the supportive strength of Terry who stands firm around and with her.
Tasting their incredulous French style cheeses, I felt a wave of sadness as I tasted cheese so similar to Barry’s who was as fixated on resurrecting old French recipes – and then joy that we had found something Barry would have much approved of.
When it comes to Die Melkbos cheeses – you’re going to have to try each one and discern your favourite. I’d recommend starting with any of them and working your way through them. There isn’t a bad one amongst them, they’re characteristically creamy with a gentleness that is much like Lida.
Their halloumi has already won awards, they’re exceptional and like with their milk, kefir, whey and yoghurt, absent of that strong goat taste many people don’t like. All raw, all French style with the halloumi exception. The French have the longest history of goat cheese making and they do it well.
The packaging is a bit elusive, we need to work on it to explain the characteristics of the cheeses better but we’ll get there. That’s just detail, the most important component is there – a beautiful farm with healthy goats, nourished well on all levels and informed by farmers with a philosophy of care and responsibility.
Look out in the meantime in the fridges for the milk, yoghurt, kefir and whey and the cheeses with the purple logo.
What you’re buying is a farm that looks after their goats well, really cares for them.
You’re buying healthy goat’s dairy from relaxed, loved animals eating a diverse diet from their vast outdoor grazing.
No, it’s not Beatrix, it isn’t about the relationship between a real shepherd and his animals. On this farm it’s about something as precious – the deep maternal care from Lida of her goats who are her children and the beauty that is there, when the love of a good Mother is at the centre.
I did indeed find something special here and we are proud to represent this in-store.
Thank you, Henrietta, and thank you Lida and Terry for you sacred work.
Barry, I think you’d much approve,