Aldersyde Farm – Tarkastad Karoo – Veldt Reared Lamb

Photographs in this farm visit post taken by Dan Colpo.
Post updated 8 August 2016.

Aldersyde Lamb Farm

Deep in the heart of the Karoo, I found another one of those farms that inspires renewed faith and renewed hope in the food revolution and its promise that we can once again access deep nourishment from real farmers.
My renewed inspiration was found in meeting the Venter family of Aldersyde lamb Farm, possibly one of the most beautiful stretches of land I had yet seen in my life. That was until, I travelled deeper into the Karoo to Kliplaat afterwards and saw scenes so beautiful that they quite literally brought tears to my eyes.
Finding the Venter family, on Aldersyde Farm, 6km’s from a small Karoo town called Tarkastad was a highlight of my incredible trip through the Eastern Cape to the Karoo, on the hunt for that special lamb farm that I’ve been searching for, for years.
After spending time in Rosendal on what I can only describe as the most idyllic mountain goat farm in South Africa, then the best farm for pigs in Ficksburg with the very special Anneke and Reuter and their exceptional Green Goose organic dairy, we travelled then still deeper into the  Karoo to find Aldersyde Farm and meet the Venter family. A family with a century of Karoo lamb farming behind them.
I had a feeling in my bones after meeting Steve and Samantha Venter, the son and daughter in law of Fanie and Sandra Venter, in a coffee shop in Bryanston a month prior, that perhaps this was the special farm for lamb I had been waiting for.
I noted how both of them spoke so passionately about the little town Tarkastad and the 2 mountains that surround it, affectionately named Mary and Martha. I saw how Steve’s eyes lit up when he spoke about the legacy of his family lived through this farm and I was excited. I sell food with a solid connection to the cycle of life and it is good, real farmers that serve as the most powerful conduit I believe. When you meet them, you know it. You feel tapped in. When Steve and Samantha first spoke about this farm and Steve’s home town Tarkastad and the homestead, I was captivated. A real Karoo farm we could connect to and possibly source lamb from, from a real Karoo farmer we can all know.
I hadn’t yet through Organic Emporium been able to find one lamb farm to believe in. It seemed as though buying lamb could only happen through co-ops with protocols for ‘free range’, the distance between good lamb farming terrain and us being so vast that the logistics seem to only work for co-operatives. I had become disillusioned with the way lamb is brought to market, so disconnected from the farmers that raise them and I was desperately looking for the equivalent special lamb farm that could match Keith Harvey’s beef. I have also become irritated at how our market is flooded with cheaper imports that put our Karoo farmers lamb out of range, so the need to bring lamb to Jozi from a real Karoo and family we can believe in has been raging on inside me for some time. And you. So many in store conversations where you have asked why we don’t have lamb and my answer is just simply that I can’t find one lamb farmer we can support yet.
Like what we had with Keith Harvey and with the  Brenaissance beef, I wanted a family, a farmer and soil I could believe in, walk and connect to.
I knew on the first night sitting in the lounge with the Venter family in their beautiful Karoo homestead filled with antiques and things that have stories, that I had found the lamb farm we’vre all been waiting for. This  home and its memorabilia stands firm as a Karoo monument to the tradition of farm lives and history.
I’m not good – at all – in talking about produce I don’t believe in and I have been holding out, waiting for the magic. Of course it had to come from the Karoo. The mysterious land of almost tormenting beauty that continually inspires art, poetry and a general reverence for life in what is still – unspoilt land and beauty.
It’s common knowledge amongst foodies that you either love or hate Karoo lamb. Much like Marmite. People rarely sit on the fence with Karoo lamb. Like the landscape it comes from – it’s has a definite tone and distinct taste. True Karoo lamb has a herby flavor because of the particular Karoo shrub that the lambs eat and this will vary significantly between farms and regions, so getting you to know lamb from specific farms with different locations is a very important deal to me.
If I have my way, you should have 2 or 3 different farms to buy lamb from. Each will have a very particular and very different taste that you should be able to discern between farms.  I am so tired of anonymous farm food on store shelves, we need to be selling farmers first, the peculiarities of the regions taste and textures and specific indigenous foods second,  and then their produce. Not produce first from anonymous farmers from unidentified distances and lands.
Anyhow, back to Aldersyde Farm and the Venter family and the beginning of our journey with them.
Aldersyde Farm is another picture perfect farm that Karoo dreams are made of. It serves as more evidence that they do exist and when you spend time on them and with them, they change you and when you get jaded in the city, you only need to think back to them to remember that there is a guiding intelligence to life and that there are still pure spaces within reach. For a good farm is a place of connection, of heart and of soul.
The term ‘free range’ should not be associated with this farm for what happens on this farm is far beyond that.  I think of the word ‘free range’ nowadays as a sort of ‘managed’ term. This isn’t like that. A farmer giving animals a specific space within which to roam with fences on a domesticated sort of farm scene is very different to a Karoo farm.
It is a Karoo farm that is in the wild and is a game farm and I didn’t really understand that until I got there. I saw another incredible ,what used to be organic lamb farm deeper still in the Karoo after that and tasted exceptional lamb, it was different to Tarkastad as it was a more managed environment. It strikes me how good farmers are farmers who adapt their philosophy to respond to the peculiarity of the land they serve as stewards of.
Fanie Venter lets nature micro-manage and he can afford to with the type of bush and shrub on his farm which was very dense even right in the thick of Winter. He manages the macro scene but just doesn’t interfere too much with the sheep and lamb, the farm had sheep with suckling lambs attached, all over and they were just left to roam vast spaces yet within a managed macro-framework. This made such an impression on me and even more so that it was so evident that Fanie doesn’t think he’s doing anything exceptionally amazing, he’s just being the right kind of Karoo farmer for his land. Yet, to us, being able to get lamb raised in this way from a farm so true to tradition is a dream come true. Quite literally for me.

The land they have access to, is too wild and too vast to fit the typical ‘free range’ term. Not even ‘pastured’ works really.

‘Pastured’ implies animals on a pasture – on grass – grown specifically to feed. This isn’t that. They are not grazing on pasture, they are veldt reared. Even ‘reared’ doesn’t really fit because there is so little interference in their everyday lives on this farm particularly. This is why I think just telling the real story of a farm is far more meaningful than labels. I don’t bother with needing the label ‘organic’ when I can visit a real farm and just connect us to them. I only need it when the farm is hidden from view and I need an outside check. Spending time on the Venter’s farm and being able to connect you to their story and that farm and bring you lamb from there, is far more meaningful than an anonymous label.
I would describe this far more as free-veldt-roaming. The only time I saw lambs interfered with when I was there, was when there were twins that were under weight and needed extra attention or who had lost their mothers to a predator. Then they would be brought to an enclosure close to the homestead where Sandra Venter can feed them by hand and keep them protected until they are strong enough to fend for themselves.

Wherever you drive on this farm – and you can drive for hours – you see sheep and lamb dotted throughout the Karoo bush.

They aren’t so much farmed, as more just left on the land to live as lamb do. Wherever I looked, there were lambs deep in the bush suckling off their mothers.
July is the start of lambing season in this region, so I was there at actually one of the best times if not the coldest. The pipes quite literally freeze every night, it was -10 the one evening and there was a power failure – I don’t think I will quite forget it. The stillness of the night and the crispness of that cold and the brilliance of the star light, is something I think you always crave going back to on a Karoo farm, once you leave. I think I might now, forever.
It was a sight for sore eyes. It’s just – and I hate to use a word that has been absurdly bastardized in our modern day world – but I will use it and stand firm in my assertion that the word – has real meaning – natural farming.
The Venter family who arrived on this farm in 1908, and who still, generations later live and farm on this farm are not doing anything much differently to the way they always have done.
I got the distinct impression that Fanie Venter thought I was a bit odd for all the fuss I was making about how he farms.
It’s just the way they have always done it. It’s almost as if – as disconnected as the city dweller, buying anonymous packaged food from retailers, has become from the farm – the farmers too have almost lost the knowledge of how valuable what they are doing, is. The restoration of the connection between us and them is the most important part of the food revolution. I think.
The idea that there is an appreciative, growing group of people in the cities that so value what they do, comes across as a shock to most farmers. Most especially, I guess, those deep in the Karoo with its great distance, have experienced being treated as the opposite by large retailers who treat them like nothing more than producers, try to squeeze them for price and make every effort to not link the consumer to the farmer. The typical retailer wants your link to them, not the producer of the food.
Fanie’s son, Steven does recognize the value of this incredible farm and his childhood play area and has put together this initiative with his beautiful wife Samantha to have his family’s great Karoo farm lamb represented in Johannesburg and this is where our story starts. Both are committed to bringing justice to their family farm through connecting the lamb to an appreciative Joburg market which the family has never had before.
It was quite something to have Steven point out every mountain – and there are several- that he climbed as a child and regale tales of running amok in this vast Karoo wilderness as children.
On the first night we were there, I was enthralled by the richness of this family’s everyday memories and ties to history. There was quite literally Boer-war memorabilia all over this grand old farmhouse.
Fanie and his colorful and very entertaining wife Sandra had tale after tale of stories about family members incidents in the war. I felt like I had been transported back in time and I was so happy to have given my children that experience too, of spending time on a real Karoo farm with all that comes with it. It’s all rich and connected – every piece of furniture, ornaments, kitchen utensils – all have history and a connection to the past. That means something. We have lost that with our conveyor belt manufactured ‘things’ that break and don’t last – materialist culture. We find lost treasure when we find real connection again to the past through things that have story and meaning. Creaking old farmhouses are so comforting and bear testament to the value of time.
Their home, their farm, their region is so rich in history and this family represents, I think, the great hardships and struggles too that face Karoo farmers. Not only from the past but the current and future realities that threaten the viabilities of their farms today. It was all there in the room in the stories of their struggles and victories and the endless precious anecdotes of animals and their interactions with them.
I wondered, often, while I listened to this family recount one richly textured story and memory after another whether they realise how special what they have is. In my quietest, hidden thoughts in that room, I felt sad that in my families modern day past, we don’t have as many rich memories like that. Farmers struggle and nature is their daily boss but they have a far richer, I think, interaction with the true essence of life and the pulse of it, than we do in the cities, disconnected. When we choose to consciously eat food from these farms, we re-connect to that impulse that they are connected to and are nourished on every level. It’s more than about the food.
Fanie Venter has his demons too, his scars and his fears. They live alongside his everyday ability to rise again and walk the earth and just farm while carrying uncertainty that farming can be a viable future for his sons. He has a deep seated need to see them free of the burdens and hardships of farming and had them both leave the farm to get educated and work in the cities. Alongside this, his son seems to have the need to connect the fruits of his fathers great farming and his families farm to an appreciative Jozi market, Steve knows that the quality of lamb raised like this is something we are starved of here and is in touch with how valuable what his family has, is. So there’s a deeper conversation happening here between 2 generations and it’s the fundamental conversation happening in the food revolution – can farmers who farm sustainably and traditionally survive and run viable businesses connected to an appreciative consumer – in a way that they are not exploited? This is for us to make real. Yes, they can – if we support them and support stores who are willing to put their energy behind branding and empowering the farmer’s name.
Farmers face an insecure future. There is the political issue of land reform that they face, their increased inability to compete with feedlot and factory farmed competitors, their distance and disconnection from the consumers in the cities and the very real effects of climate change. I haven’t yet to meet one farmer that doesn’t tell you how very real climate change is. Don’t listen to expert debates, ask a farmer whether climate change is real, their fates are intimately connected to the weather and most are frightened by the changes they are seeing.
I was very struck too by Fanie Venter’s kinship with water. Not only was he the first farmer to bring an automated water pump to that area, he is also a water diviner and the farm is blessed with beautiful fountain mineral springs and a source of pristine water through-out. There is another gorgeous rich family tale of just well the Karoo community back in the day responded to Fanie’s ability to ‘feel’ the location of water. In very conservative religious communities, some thought that this ability must be linked to the devil. I am certain, the ability, rather, is a link to God.
Steven and Samantha both talk about how they have both tried the divining rods to seek water but haven’t felt the ‘energy’ of water that water diviners can through their rods. A special relationship to water, just kept coming up around Fanie, he’s a farmer with such a strong sense of connection to his land, like all good farmers.
The Karoo is sheep terrain, as we know. The various shrubs provide idyllic veldt grazing conditions for sheep and lamb and the country’s best lamb comes from this region.
In summer they grow lucerne, which they bale and store for winter to provide extra nourishment if the land can’t support the nutritional needs of the sheep. This is a very real winter reality in South Africa.
Other than that, it’s just natural grazing on Karoo bossies, shrubs and veldt. Obviously no growth promoters, and no feed-lotting or antibiotics.
These are merino sheep, Fanie has a particular belief about not slaughtering them too young, which technically makes them teenagers which there isn’t a word for. Lamb are called lamb until they break teeth and thereafter mutton whether you’re referring to a lamb that has just broken teeth and starting to leave childhood or one that is 3 years into adulthood. This is not older mutton like that, Fanie believes in letting lamb cut teeth before they are ready to be slaughtered and I feel much better about this, never been happy with the age at which we eat lamb traditionally. I feel its too young.
He is adamant that they shouldn’t be killed so young, that the slightly older just reaching maturity lambs, having been raised on veldt for that much longer, are better in texture and taste. This is why they are calling it mutton, they even want to add a tag line, ‘we don’t sell lamb’ they feel so strongly about it and so do I. It feels good to rather eat from an animal that has lived longer and not been killed so young.
While I was there, I visited 2 potential abattoirs that they were looking at, out of 3, looking for the best ones with the most stress-free process and highest HAS (humane animal slaughter) scores. The one that has been chosen leaves the lamb to rest on pasture (lucerne which needs to come from the farm of origin) for a minimum of 3 days and a maximum of a week so that they can relax into their new environment before the slaughter time. I left feeling at peace that in these small abattoirs, the lamb is not stressed and literally doesn’t know up until it is stunned, that it is going to die. Sadly, I lost all of the photographs I took of that visit and of the farm due to a technical glitch with my phone – devastated actually – so I can’t give you all the great photographs I took of the farm. In the slide-show though the ones marked ‘abattoir’, show you how they are kept after their travel there, to relax for a week and get over the stress of the change in environment. The rest are of the farm. I also am waiting for new photographs of Fanie, Sandra, Steven, Samantha and their son for the album.

This is true Karoo veldt reared farming by a family run farm just doing things they always have done and resurrecting our belief in pure and sustainably farmed lamb.

In the heart of this farm lies the farm house which you see as a real illustration of on the logo. I quite literally stayed in the cottage you see to the right of the picture with my children when we spent time getting to know this special family and farm in true Karoo Winter conditions that include frozen water pipes every morning.
When you spend time with farmers, sitting around tables into the late night hours over supper listening to their history, the stories that make up the fabric of their lives, you leave a friend. I always leave farms like that with a deep need to connect you to them and to the great nourishment that comes from the fruits of their labor.
The recollection of the stillness and the darkness of the Karoo nights we spent there and just being with a family and house with such a strong history and connection to the land, will stay with me forever.
Karoo lamb is a part of our heritage as South Africans. It’s the land that belongs to sheep farming and that best supports these animals, much like Vryburg is to cattle.
I feel very proud to be a part of this and being able to connect you to another great South African food hero in a great Karoo lamb farmer like Fanie Venter and to connect you to a farm of this caliber, is a great feeling.
We are selling half and whole lamb boxes from this incredible farm.  The initial order is all in half boxes – if you want a whole, you can order 2. E-mail michael@organicemporium.co.za for the box cut options you can choose.
Aldersyde Farm will carry the Organic Emporium endorsement sticker. This is the first lamb farm I endorse as a farm I have walked, believe in and want to connect you to. This is a farm you can trust is farming sustainably and without abuse, feed-lotting, the addition of grain, antibiotics or growth promoters and with the most humane slaughter conditions we can find at a small family-run abattoir that takes extra care to minimise the stress to the lamb. It just is what it is, a real Karoo farm, run by a real Karoo farmer that I have met and believe in.

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