Knowing where we come from is important. But, to know where we come from, we first need to know something about our own family history. Presumably, for most us, upon discovery of our family history, we are left feeling enriched and possibly, feeling all the more wiser for knowing more about our family origins and where we come from.
However, knowing more about somebody else’s family history might not be all that important to us at all—unless of course, in the world of farming and business, we discover that the legacy underlying a particular family-name constitutes the very essence of the way in which that family has successfully farmed the lands for 5 generations, spanning no less that 150 years.
The following historic account which details the origins of the Firth-family farming history, was relayed to me by Doctor Ian Firth, eldest surviving 4th-generation Firth, from the Wolmaransstad region of the North West Province, South Africa. This is ‘Doc’s’ (as he is fondly known by most locals in the region) story…
Starting at the beginning (Once upon a time, a long time ago…)
In 1872, my great grandfather, Thomas Spence Leask, set foot in South Africa. Thomas Leask hailed from an established farming district set on the outskirts of Stromness, the second largest town on the Orkney islands (an archipelago in the Northern Isles of Scotland, just off the north coast of the island of Great Britain).
Upon his arrival at a geographic location that was later to evolve into the bustling little town of Wolmaransstad, Leask’s primary quest was to open a satellite general dealer branch of which, the main branch (that his uncle Thomas Smith Leask owned), was situated some 90km’s to the north-east of Wolmaransstad in the town of Klerksdorp.
Klerksdorp was situated on the main ‘wagon route’ which lay midway between Johannesburg and Kimberley. It’s interesting to note that what was eventually to become Wolmaransstad, originated as a small settlement that was stationed halfway between the Goldfields (of the West Rand) and the Diamondfields (of the Kimberley region).
In the wake of the establishment of Leask’s general dealer shop, the little town of Wolmaransstad quickly burgeoned.
Some years later, in 1891, there was a dispute as to the exact locality of the newly evolving town of Wolmaransstad. To mediate the uncertainty surrounding this dispute, President Kruger [President of the Republic of South Africa from 1883–1900] travelled from Potchefstroom to the Wolmaransstad region and stayed with the Leask’s. It was during this visit that the dispute was settled and Wolmaransstad was officially proclaimed a town.
As time passed, through sheer grit and astute business savvy, Thomas Spence Leask rapidly grew the general dealer shop into a large successful business that provided everything at the time, that might be considered necessary for living—particularly for farming and for building.
Second Boer War and the Afrikaner Rebellion
Several years of peaceful living passed. However, the tide of fortune was soon to turn when, during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Leask’s general dealer shop was plundered and everything he owned was lost. The Leask family home was plundered too. A sequence of unfortunate subsequent events culminated in the Leask family being interned (by the British) in Klerksdorp, for the remainder of the war. It was only after the Second Boer War ended, that Leask (with much resolve and determination), restarted his general dealership and built it up again, from scratch.
Some years later, when the Afrikaner Rebellion (1914-1915) broke out, Thomas Leask feared that his family might again lose everything, so—pre-empting the worst—he decided to sell the general dealer shop, opting to buy farmland instead.
My grandfather, John Leask Firth also hailed from the Orkney Islands. During the Second Boer War years, my grandmother and her sister attended school in the Orkney Islands. Grandfather John (as he was fondly known to me), grew up on the Orkney Island farm, Aglath (which lay adjacent to ‘The Leigh’), the farm where my grandmother’s grandparents lived. Hence, my grandfather John knew my grandmother, Catherine (‘Katie’) Leask, from an early age when they were still growing up together.
John Leask Firth came out from the Orkney islands after doing an apprenticeship in ‘soft goods’ and worked for my great grandfather Thomas as the shop’s bookkeeper. Not long thereafter, John married Katie.
John Garriock Firth & John Leask Firth—my father and grandfather
My father, John Garriock Firth (in other words, our son John’s grandfather) was born on 17 Dec 1911. In the early 1930’s, after finishing his high schooling in Johannesburg, my father completed an agricultural course at Potchefstroom Agricultural College. Following the completion of his studies, he started farming with his father—their first crops being maize.
It’s worth noting that my grandfather, John Leask Firth, having grown up on a farm in Orkney, had some farming experience of sheep farming. As such, he ran a lot of sheep and speculated with cattle too.
In 1938, my grandparents completed the building of their new farmhouse. In that very same year, my father married my mother, Grace Osborn. They began their married life living in a large farmhouse that was—rather interestingly—a converted former farm shed. Mom and dad had three children: me being the eldest and a younger brother and sister.
A particular fond memory that I clearly still remember, was how all the ploughing, planting and tilling used to be done with spans of oxen—until, in 1946/7 we purchased our first tractor, a Case tractor that had metal wheels with spikes for traction.
Not long had it been before my father—John Garriock Firth—started to expand and extended the ploughing and cultivation of the farmlands. At one stage, my dad was running 24 tractors, ploughing an area of 2400 hectares, which was rather extensive considering the limitations of the early tractors of those days with their somewhat limited capacity to handle large tracts of land (when compared with the massive capabilities of today’s modern tractors).
Grandad dies in 1953—Dad takes over the farming
Sadly, in 1953 my grandfather died. Naturally, this meant that my dad had to assume sole responsibility for all the farming.
As part of an active ongoing growth strategy, dad (John Garriock) also begun to farm with dairy cattle—in particular, Jersey and Friesland which supplied Wolmaransstad, by horse cart, with milk, cream and butter. I distinctly remember the cream being separated and churned into butter. Cream was delivered to the local train station and sent by rail to the neighbouring town of Bloemhof to be made into butter by the well know company, Dairy Belle.
I recall my father being a perfectionist (with a strong predilection for engineering). At one stage, there were four farms. Apart from our own family, there were many employees who were entirely dependent upon him for their livelihoods. For this reason, my dad passionately and actively continued with farming …until he had an unexpected severe heart attack in 1960.
Farming operations change after dad’s heart attack
The heart attack affected my father rather severely. At the time, he was 49 years old, running one of the biggest farming operations in the Western Transvaal (as it was formerly known). As a result of this setback, dad was obliged to let out the plowable lands. He turned his concentration to the farming of cattle and sheep. At one stage, extending across the various farms, we had about 5000 sheep—Merino and Oxford Downs (an English breed). We also had about 700 steers.
Following dad’s heart attack, owing to his weakened state of health, he turned to the help of farm managers to look after the day-to-day farming operations at the various farms. However, notwithstanding inasmuch as farm managers were running the farming operations, my father was never removed from what was happening on the farms and its books. He continued to carry overall accountability for the farms by overseeing everything from his office situated in Wolmaransstad. At that time, I was attending university at Pretoria University.
I studied two years of an agricultural degree before qualifying as a veterinary surgeon in 1964. Early the following year, in February 1965, I married Jennifer Gates. For our honeymoon we travelled overseas for an extended 18-month period—partly to travel and partly to gain veterinary experience at two overseas veterinary practices. Once we returned to South Africa during the latter part of 1966, I established a veterinary practice in Wolmaransstad. I also took over full responsibility for the livestock on our farms. This included administering all our own vaccinations and implementation of dosing programmes for the many cattle and sheep under our care.
For some time, my dad and I farmed cattle together. Our farming operation concentrated mainly on acquiring weaner calves, running them on the veld and fattening them in our feedlots. However, as time passed, the cattle farming operation transitioned—from primarily engaging in the buying and selling of steers—to a cow calf-breeding operation.
At some point, we also started stud farming with Brahman and Simmental cattle. The Simmental stud was built up into a successful operation that thrived for several years. Both of these breeds were used for cross-breeding to improve our commercial cattle product.
Dad dies in 1980—I take over the farming
In 1980, my father—John Garriock Firth—died. Each of the siblings inherited an equal third of the farms. I inherited Highlands Farm and have been living there ever since. I was still a practising vet in the Wolmaransstad district when dad died. Upon his passing, naturally I then took over the full responsibility and accountability for all the farms—the entire farming business. I continued to manage all the farms until my brother and sister sold the farms that they had inherited.
I recall one of my first business decisions relating to the farming operation being to expand the dairy operation into an exclusive Friesland/Holstein dairy herd. With the aid of a computerised feeding system, we were milking 100 cows twice daily. We produced milk for NCD (National Cooperative Dairies), whilst also supplying the local town with milk. My trusted and exceptionally capable wife, Jenny (as she is fondly known), managed the dairy’s computerised system, whilst also overseeing the bottling and delivery of milk to the town. Additionally, we also relied on hired farm managers to assist with other aspects related to the efficient and profitable running of a successful dairy-farming business.
However, during the 1980’s a prolonged drought lasting several years took its toll on many dairy farms in the region. In our initial attempts to weather the drought, we planted maize for silage for the dairy herd. Be that as it may, the protracted drought was too extreme! We simply were unable to continue as a productive and profitable dairy farming operation. Even my veterinary practice suffered under the drought when some 20-25 dairy farms in the region folded under the pressure of the debilitating drought conditions.
Determined not to allow the drought to get us down, we turned our attention and energy to ostrich farming. We started out by purchasing 3-day old chicks and rearing them until they reached the age of 9 months—the optimal age at which ostrich skins and meat are ready for market.
Jennifer would take care of raising the ostrich chicks, until they reached about three months old. Thereafter, we relocated the young ostriches to different camps where they continued to grow until we could harvest their feathers for subsequent sale on the ostrich-feather market. In time, natural progression and growth of the ostrich farming operation led to breeding with breeding-pairs. We acquired several large incubators for the ostrich eggs. At the height of the ostrich farming business, Jennifer even successfully ran her own secondary ‘side-line’ business—cleaning and selling the much-in-demand empty ostrich eggshells which were a by-product of infertile ostrich eggs. Jenny even discovered profitable commercial use for the skins of ostriches that died before reaching a desired market-weight. At one stage, Jenny even commissioned the production of handbags by a well-known firm in Cape Town and selling them thereafter. Our thriving ostrich farm was certified as a registered export ostrich breeding farm.
Regrettably though, our ostrich-farming enterprise reached an abrupt end when the unexpected Avian influenza struck in the Cape, resulting in a sudden end to the exportation of ostrich products from South Africa.
Farming operations in the past 13 years
Some 13 years ago, in 2007, I started the pecan nut farming operation. My eldest son John, who had graduated (1991) from Stellenbosch University with a degree in agricultural economics and administration, joined me on the farm. With John’s involvement and business savvy, it was possible to enlarge and grow the pecan orchards. It’s worth knowing that John’s other primary business interest lies in diamond mining. In this regard, my son’s MBA degree continues to stand him in good stead to serve as CEO of all our current farming divisions—a collective business entity that we promote and market under the Firth Group banner.
Until as recently as 2010, my wife Jenny continued to do all the bookkeeping, reporting and tax administration for the farm. It was also in 2010, that our current Managing Director, Piet Botma joined us. Most notably, it was also in 2010 that I initiated the Firth Red Brangus stud farming division.
With time, most farming divisions across the farms have continued to experience steady growth. Accordingly, it made prudent business sense to step aside, and hand over full control and responsibility for the business side of the farming operation to my son, John. John’s keen involvement has led to the expansion and development of the Firth Red Brangus stud, as well as the enlargement to the pecan orchards of the Makwassiespruit Pecan Nut division. At a point, John also changed the former business name of Highlands Trust, to Makwassie Spruit Enterprises—an entity which is now nationally marketed in the media and referred to in public relations, using the rather appropriate umbrella business name known as the Firth Group.
Most recent farming divisions added to the Firth Group
Some 6 years ago, in 2014, after purchasing an adjoining farm, John launched a game and wildlife stud breeding division, which has successfully been marketed in the media and promoted at auctions, under the brand name, Hillcrest Game Estates.
John also started a cycad farming division, which is marketed under the brand name, Highlands Cycads. Lastly, about 3 years ago, the commencement of our Wagyu cattle stud began, and which is known and marketed under the brand name, Firth Wagyu.
In conclusion, as I fondly reflect upon the history of the notable forbear that Thomas Spence Leask was, I am convinced that the very same grit and determination that he had, spans all five generations of the Firth family—we have inherited an instinctive farmer’s fighting-spirit that is embedded within the Firth DNA, and which has providentially been passed on from generation to generation, right up until the current 5th generation (and which I do hope, will continue to be passed on into the 6th and further generations which are yet to follow). Admittedly, times won’t always be easy in farming—the farming industry in South Africa is under an enormous state of flux. However, if one thing remains certain, then it’s this: farming is in our blood. It runs through our veins. We won’t give up on farming too easily either. As my son John has been known to say: “We remain curious and courageous for what’s yet to come!”