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Mohair Could Be Nowhere

Thousands of lives are bound up with the Karoo. Many ambitious entrepreneurs make up the biggest mohair industry in the world and fear fracking.

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The Herold father-son duo are the biggest mohair farmers in Graaff-Reinet, in the Eastern Cape; and the second biggest in the country. South Africa has 900 mohair farmers who make up 54% of the world’s production. The Herolds used innovative farming techniques, foresight and discipline to expand their land from 7,000 to 16,000ha. They lease another 6,000ha.

Richard Herold, aged 30, has his sights set on becoming the world’s number one mohair farmer; if hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, doesn’t put him out of business first.

“All our drinking water comes from underground, if it is contaminated our animals won’t have water to drink, that’ll be the end of small-stock farming. Water is the key,” says Herold.

Richard Herold

“Fracking would probably kill the mohair industry, because the area which is earmarked, like Jansenville and Beaufort West, is the main area of mohair production,” says Justin Coetzee of the South African Mohair growers association.

Like many Karoo farmers, they support attorney Derek Light who is battling it out against international energy companies wanting to pursue hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.

“The traffic and damage to the roads [is another concern], it would lead to an increase of stock theft and damage to property. A lot of the things are unknown, it might even be a positive, it might create a lot of jobs and incomes for people, but you don’t know. The possibility, if you look at what happened in America, I wouldn’t want that to happen here,” says Herold.

He believes fracking would change the way of life in the Karoo: “The big part of the attraction and value that we place on it, is the isolation. If you were to drive past drilling rigs it wouldn’t feel like you were in the Karoo,” he says.

“We have a farm in western Australia—where we keep feral goats for meat production—in a mining area. I’ve seen the impact where farming and mining mix and well… they don’t mix, it changes the dynamics completely,” he says.

While Herold’s great-grandfather bought the land in 1922; it was his grandfather who bought the animals. Seventy per cent were sheep and the rest goats. David Herold, his father, turned it into a mohair farm.

“We sold all our sheep two years ago and we’re slowly replacing them with goats,” says Herold. They now have 95% goats and some cattle. While other mohair farmers have a weaning rate of around 75%—they rear 75 kids off of 100 reproducing ewes—he has a 100% weaning rate. “That’s not to say we’re producing 100 from 100, we do have a loss of 10% but we also have twins; one makes up for the other,” he says smiling.

When he’s not fighting off invading jackals and lynxes, from nearby game reserves, or attending meetings held by gas companies; he’s doing the day-to-day things to improve the quality of his mohair to get the best price.

“With our kid hair, we’re generally in the top three to five [sellers] in South Africa. But we can certainly improve on that. It’s nice to know that there is still a lot to be done to prepare our clip better. Our fiber was contaminated with grass seed last year, that’s something you can manage but you sometimes have to put the animals’ nutrition ahead of its fiber. Sometimes you have to make the decision to put them on the best food regardless of what happens to their hair,” says Herold.

“We had the highest ever adult mohair price per kilogram two seasons ago, which lasted for one week and then someone else got it. But that was a bin, so it was a compilation of other people’s mohair, so it wasn’t just one producer,” he says proudly.

While he is a registered stud breeder, he doesn’t sell them; he keeps the best genetic material for his farm.  He also puts the kids into a high-grazing, fenced off pen.

“If they grow up well and have a good foundation it gives them a head-start for the rest of their lives. They’re like children. It’s a good investment now for the future,” says Harold.

He speaks with great admiration when explaining his father’s innovative farming practices. Through his lateral thinking and decades of experience, he has successfully reduced the labor-intesity of ‘shedding’ goats after the goats have been shorn. While other farmers usually put their sheds near trees or shrubs which are natural forms of shelter and might decide not to shed them on certain nights on that account; David decided to strategically place them in open veld.

“Psychologically you know you have to shed them because there’s no other option. It usually takes quite a lot of effort and manpower, but in this way you’re forcing yourself to be disciplined because it’s open; one man can even do it, whereas others might require a few men to do so. Also they’re quite intelligent, you can train them. We’ll shear them every night regardless, so they’ll go automatically. It’s a habit you train into them, and the nanny goats will monitor the kids,” says Herold.

Herold has an eye for opportunity; he has his finger in many pies. He breeds 250 tuli cattle for the meat market and had up to 3,000 ostriches, until recently, because they do so well in times of drought and they’re versatile: you can farm them for their meat, feathers and eggs.

Imagine what his grandfather would say were he to find out that they currently have around 10,000 angora goats; by far the most for miles around. They’ll do anything but boast about it though, for they are humble people, even though, Herold has high ambitions: “I want to be the biggest mohair farmer in the world in the next few years.”

The flock numbers fluctuate depending on the season and the composition of the animals.

“You have to take a long-term view. Don’t stock your farm to the full potential as it’s an asset you have to look after, without over-grazing it,” says Herold.

The land can hold anything up to 14,000; on average he has between 8,000 to 10,000 goats, he says.

Herold takes a very reasoned approach to farming, in the drought of 2009-2010 he had to de-stock by 10% to guarantee food for the remaining animals for the following year. One hundred hectares of the land is used for irrigation.

That’s not to say that farming doesn’t come with its fair share of political challenges too.

“I’d say our biggest concerns in farming are political: what our place is going to be priority-wise for the government. The ‘green papers’ they are putting forth look to limit the amount of land that individuals can own. Limiting anything in business is not conducive to investment and good business, it forces people to start looking elsewhere,” he says.

According to Herold, government appointed land-valuers don’t necessary understand or have the knowledge of the area.

“Every business is a long-term investment, it makes one think twice before re-investing and expanding in [one’s] business… I might invest in this property and grow it and then in 10 years a government valuer might say ‘no, it’s not worth this, it’s worth that’,” he says.

The monthly running costs of his farm are R100,000 ($12,000) and returns vary.

“We were getting a better price for our mohair five years ago then we are now. The cost of production has gone up. The game [reserve] industry has pushed up the price of land beyond what the farming value has been, so it’s more difficult to buy and expand your business now than what it was 20 years ago,” he says. He doesn’t find it surprising that many farmers are turning elsewhere to ecotourism and ‘bed and breakfasts’.

Between his and his father’s farms they employ 20 permanent staff, the average staff member has been with them for 10 years. David serves on the mohair trust and is the chairmen of the black economic empowerment development trust within the angora industry.

“We have incentive schemes in place and training courses in fencing, mohair grading and tractor driving. That is the key to small-stock farming: having good, reliable people working for you. You can’t pay them minimum wage, day in day out, and expect them to go the extra mile for you. Sometimes we can’t close shop on a Friday and open up again and start again on a Monday,” Herold says.

They fear if fracking happens, they may have to close shop on a Friday and may not be able to open again on a Monday.

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