“We need to invest so little time in a person to make a huge difference”
Judy Stuart, founder and CEO of Future Farmers, explains how young South Africans learn about themselves and become farm managers.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: How did you come up with the idea for Future Farmers?
Judy Stuart: I was a dairy farmer myself, and we had school children who came to our farm to train calves for youth shows. I got to know three boys from an agricultural school over a year or two, and asked what they planned to do when they finished school. They said they would probably stay at home and become unemployed. They couldn’t get into an agricultural college because of money, or their school marks weren’t good enough.
I was devastated. I asked farmers I knew whether they would take on someone as paid apprentices. My goal was to get these boys into an educational process where they didn’t have to pay. The next year, the boys’ friends contacted me, and the following year a few more.
CSG: You set out to help a handful of motivated, young black farm workers, and it blossomed from there?
JS: Yes, it really snowballed! Farmers paid them as apprentices, but the young people themselves were responsible to get as much information from their environment and learn as much as they could. I did mentoring, focusing more on soft skills. Then I had the idea to send them abroad, because we had hosted young people through the AFS (American Field Service) and I saw how even six months in a different environment changed them.
I wanted to expose the young people to first world cultures, give them some idea of the scale of the world, let them learn by seeing and experiencing different things. At the moment, we have just under 40 interns on farms in Australia and the United States.
CSG: Tell me more about the mentoring that you do.
JS: It seems quite elementary, but we try to help them to hold down a job. We start with things like timekeeping, how to work with people, how to apply for a job, how to conduct yourself at an interview. Many young people that grow up in remote rural communities, very poor communities, don’t have these skills.
I think it’s a tragedy in our country that so often young people have the ability and the passion, but they don’t really know how to deliver it. All we’ve done is create opportunities and give them the mentoring they need.
“I think it’s a tragedy in our country that so often young people have the ability and the passion, but they don’t really know how to deliver it.”
CSG: When your young farmers are ready to go abroad, what happens then?
JS: We’ve got some funders to put up the first money we use to send people overseas. We don’t charge the young people anything. Their air fare, health insurance, visa fees, all the necessary things are covered. As interns, they earn a wage while they’re abroad, and agree to pay us half their wage each month. It usually takes about four months until they’ve repaid us, and then we can use that money to send the next person.
I’ve got this very strong belief that I want them to do things for themselves. Political leader Steve Biko said, “Handouts do not improve your self-esteem, doing it for yourself does.” The Future Farmers that have been through our process as apprentices and then interns overseas – whatever they achieve, they owe it to themselves.
CSG: It must be quite a culture shock for young black African farmers to go to the US or Australia. How do they manage?
JS: It’s a phenomenal experience for a young person. Especially for someone who has grown up in an impoverished community, who’s maybe never been to an airport. Our Future Farmers arrive and are treated with utmost respect. People are friendly towards them, and they can really stretch themselves and deliver.
I honestly believe that those young people learn more about themselves in that year of being away from home, in a top overseas operation, than they would in years in this country. They come back with the most incredible self-esteem. They walk into my office with different body language, a different way of speaking and so much confidence. It’s amazing how little time we need to invest in a person to make such a huge, huge difference.
CSG: Where do your Future Farmers go when they come back to South Africa?
JS: Let me tell you about one of our lads, Vumani, who came from a remote rural community and managed to get a job as a laborer at a dairy farm. The farm contacted us and said they have a young man who loves his work and is more than just a laborer. So we took on Vumani, and after about two years sent him to an award-winning dairy in California.
“Those young people learn more about themselves in that year of being away from home, in a top overseas operation, than they would in years in this country. They come back with the most incredible self-esteem.”
They have interns there from all over the world, many from Europe, qualified vets and animal nutritionists. Vumani had finished school, but had no tertiary qualifications – but he became the number two, reporting to the boss. The dairy management wrote back to me and said, “Vumani is a natural leader.”
If he’d remained in South Africa, he’d have remained a simple laborer, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone would have ever discovered that he had leadership potential. Now he’s back in South Africa and managing a whole dairy farm on his own, about 600 cows. And he’s still in his 20s.
CSG: Will your Future Farmers change commercial farming in South Africa?
JS: These young people are changing agriculture in this country. But there are so many of them with massive potential; we do not have the capacity to reach them all. We are just scratching the surface – and we’re never really finished.
People that started with Future Farmers in 2006 and 2007 are still with us, some of them doing mentoring and helping us in many ways. They don’t go away and they keep learning. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.
Judy Stuart is the founder of Future Farmers, a South African foundation attracting and developing a new generation of predominantly black commercial farmers. She is one of the ten recipients of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards, which are bestowed to social innovators and change makers in the field of child and youth development.