Lentelus Farm

The farm Lentelus was acquired by the philosopher Marthinus Versfeld in 1948. In those days this was long way from Cape Town. A large family, we would visit for a month every summer – travelling by train, railway bus and truck. The farm was originally known as 'Dieptes van Ellende' (Depths of Despair) – an indication of the hard life that had come before. 'Lentelus' (Joy of Spring) was perhaps a natural reaction to this. The farm still offers an interesting reflection on those times past and the hardscrabble existence of early settlers; every scrap of available land and every drop of water was utilised. There is a rich pre-history too, with many San caves and fine artwork.

There is a long and fascinating land use, with an agricultural history stretching back to the 1800’s and perhaps at its apex at the time of the devastating 1916 flood (reputed to have been 24 inches of rain in 24 hours), signs of which are still very visible today. The depopulation of the rural South African ‘platteland’ with the Great Depression of the 1930’s has been followed by further sad amalgamation of farms and accelerating depopulation of the entire Bo Kouga district since the 1970’s. More recently the collapse of rural service infrastructure (the railway bus service; the narrow gauge railway from Avontuur to Port Elizabeth; and closure of the local store) have made life ever more lonely and hard for people living there.

Some of the history of Lentelus is recorded in Marthinus Versfeld’s well known little book “Klip en Klei” – considered a classic in Afrikaans literature; in a film made for television by Katinka Heyns (Marthinus Versfeld – Man van Klip en Klei); and it is wonderfully commemorated in a poem by Breyten Breytenbach “Op pad na Bo Kouga” that appears in his book “Seisoen in die Paradys”, written under the pseudonym BB Lazarus.

Old furrows, once productive fields, the walls and even the hearthstones of many old homes, are slowly disappearing. Sadly there is little of the true history of the Bo Kouga recorded – and our memories of those early days, and of the oral histories, are slowly fading.

The climate is predominantly Mediterranean with a very variable rainfall averaging 380mm year. Winters are cold with heavy frosts especially in July. Summers can be very hot and very dry, with summer thunderstorms (‘verdwaalde donderbuie’) providing occasional relief.

Lentelus farm is unusually blessed with water. It really is a paradise. The farm is the only user of land within the entire Tweerivier – which drains into the Kouga River. There is a vast catchment ringed by great peaks and ridges (Bakenskop and Saptouskop) and Tweerivier is a strong perennial stream.  With only 10 hectares of readily irrigable land this provides more than enough water for irrigation and for household use.  The early settlers in the 1800’s constructed an amazing furrow and even today the farm is served by this ancient ‘sloot’ built against the cliff faces for over two kilometres, bringing gravity-fed irrigation water to most of the lands.  

Most of our essential oils are sourced from local plant material cultivated on old abandoned lands. The process has been one of:

- identifying suitable aromatic plants
- making cuttings which are raised in open-rooted beds (mostly in September) under 30% shade-cloth
- planting out in December (typically at a row spacing of 1 m, with 0.5 m within rows, or 20 000 plants/ha)
- watering with small overhead sprinklers on drag lines
- weeding…weeding…weeding, and finally
- harvesting and distilling

As we start to produce enough distilled plant material the planted fields are slowly being mulched. An application of ‘Bounceback’ may be applied as an organic boost if plants appear to require this.

Planting is in small blocks to minimise erosion hazard. Until now we have prepared each land by sowing a green manure, ploughed in a few weeks before planting, but the impact of kudu has rendered this practice virtually worthless. Once the essential oils are planted out this becomes a no-till system and soils are fully protected, with mulch providing a great tilth.

The system is very simple, making optimal use of local skills and capabilities. Wild harvesting can also be rewarding – with plants in their natural state responding vigorously to harvest pruning – providing for a very sustainable system. We have been dreaming for six years now, acquired our first experimental still less than five years ago (in 2011), and our first ‘commercial’ still in May 2014. To date we still have less than two hectares of plant material in the ground, but have plans for close on another hectare in the summer of 2016/17, and hopefully expanding to five hectares by 2020. Although the farm is 450 ha in extent, only 10 hectares of this is arable and irrigable – and our water allocation is limited to 10 hectares, some of which is taken up by olives, apricots and pecans. We expect that, as small growers working by hand, we will have those hands very full once five hectares are planted to essential oils. But we are proud of our product and are learning fast.