The Story of Provenance Farm
It was snowing
slightly when we drove onto the farm with sleet and wind that was harsh
and biting. We bumped over the land, then got out of the bakkie at a
high place on the north side of the Boerberg Mountain and stood there,
gaping at the magnificent sight before us. We looked over the tranquil
Koo valley, beyond the mysterious Simonskloof and Keerom hills, then
when the clouds lifted, the majestic snowy tops of the Matroosberg were
clear and glistening, high above the Hex Mountain range. We were freezing,
whipped by the wind, stung by the sleet, but even so, could hardly contain
ourselves from signing there and then on the dotted line.
The heat of summer is relentless from early in the day and throughout
the nights, wilting our young cuttings in the shade-house and blurring
the landscape into a dazzling, dusty, shimmering haze. Work must go
on and the plants needs water so our daily round of chores continue,
at a slower pace, with much sweat, sunburnt skin and many sighs. The
clammy heat of the coast is what we know, but this parched air that
drapes around you like a thick, heavy blanket, is new to us and takes
some getting used to. One February day, when the temperature was soaring
towards 47 degrees C, our daughter Jenna and I could stand it no more,
so we leapt into the car and drove for an hour to Worcester and back,
solely for the purpose of buying a Porta-Pool. With the midday heat
on our shoulders we broke nails, sweated and swore as we wrestled with
the wire frame that holds the pool erect but finally and blissfully
were able to find respite in it's cool, blue wateriness. That pool has
saved our sanity on many occasions and continues to be one of our best
At last the summer months passed and autumn came gently to the farm, inspiring the freshly harvested geranium plants to give their last strength to a flurry of new shoots and leaves. Within weeks they were again bushy and bright green, luring the sheep from the camp next door to squeeze through the fence and investigate this delectable looking shrub. Fortunately for us, it didn't take them long to find out that it wasn't their cup of tea at all.
Winter arrived early in July. It was a cold, rainy morning and I was tapping away at my laptop, engrossed and completely unaware of the quiet changes that were happening outside. At some stage I looked up and out of the window to see a blur of whiteness and the complete and utter silence sent me bolting outside with the dogs excitedly yelping at my heels. There before us was a new, snowy wonderland which stretched as far as we could see. Sophie and Keisie, (our Jack Russell and American Bulldog) were stunned, standing transfixed as they sniffed and pawed at the ground. But very quickly they were delighted to find that the cold, white, fluffy stuff was diggable, eatable and jolly good fun. Snapping at snowflakes and galloping about, they had the best day of their young lives to date. Pete took stock of the geranium and lavender plants which were completely blanketed in snow and we began to fret about what this might do to them. But as the days went by and we saw that no ill effects were in evidence, we stopped worrying. In fact, it because quite clear that these plants loved the cold conditions and continued to grow vigorously through the winter months.
In late September it was time again to harvest. Once again we fetched the wood fired distillation plant and set it up behind the house in a place well sheltered from the wind. Once again Pete and our tireless lads in the fields, toiled, cut and carted loads of geranium leaves and stalks in an endless procession from field to furnace. During this time we had a stream of visitors in the form of family, friends and neighbours, all curious to see what we were up to. The 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' distillation plant is a strange looking object with taps, switches and dials, smoke billowing from it's high chimney and a fierce fire burning in it's belly for days, so it's no wonder that there were many jokes regarding the manufacturing of mampoer and illicit whiskey and the suspicious 'goings on' at our remote mountain-side farm. This time though it was different. The oil just poured forth and at the end of three weeks we had a store room shelf, packed with large, dark brown bottles of superb geranium oil that released to the house a sudden blast of heavily scented air, each time the door was opened. Even now, though the oil is no longer there, the scent in that store-room is as strong as ever and heavenly to breathe.
It became clear, early in our farming endeavours, that to survive financially we were going to have to add value to the oils with the manufacturing of our own body care products. As Pete is wholly occupied with farming, it fell upon me to begin this process. At first, I was completely daunted by the huge task of starting a business of which I knew nothing about. My first tentative research on the matter made me realise that, although intriguing, making cosmetics is a huge and varied subject and is very scientific and scary. None the less it didn't take long to find suppliers of the raw materials, which led to the discovery of a Heaven-sent cosmetic pharmacist in Johannesburg, who was willing to guide me through my first wobbly steps in this fascinating world of formulating lotions and potions. Before long I was whipping up luscious creams, yummy body butters, balms, shampoos and scrubs. My mind was awash with ideas for new products and my husband became the ever patient lab-rat. After a frenzied morning in the kitchen, surrounded by bowls of cream, bottles of oils and various additives and active ingredients, I'd take a jar of my latest experiment to Pete in the fields. He'd push back his hat, then he'd sniff and paste it onto his dry, brown arms then, with much deliberation and more sniffing and pasting, he'd give me his considered opinion. This went on for months until I began to feel confident that what I was producing were acceptable, high quality products and I was ready to reveal what I had made to a small circle of friends and family for judgement. I was surprised and delighted when the feedback was positive and when it was not, I was spurred on with greater determination to get it right. The shampoo and conditioner were my biggest challenges and after a few buckets of failed attempts I finally created a product that pleased everyone.
A phone call to Carma Hair Studios in Montagu resulted in our first real sale. The owners of this business are Michael and Carla Cole, hairdresser and alternative health specialist respectively. We will be eternally grateful to them for their incredible trust and faith in us and for enthusiastically and excitedly stacking their shelves in the studio with our products, which were made with their specific needs and preferences and labelled with their own branding.
It has taken more time to package and label the products than it took to formulate and make them because, as a graphic artist, I was designing a new label every week then sending it out to friends and family for opinions. This resulted in many and varied points of view which confused and discouraged me and so I began to lose my own vision. Finally our son Sam, an Art Director at an advertising company in Cape Town, gave me the best advise I had received so far. He suggested that it would be a good idea to paint a botanical representation of the rose geranium and use it simply and cleanly on a label that would characterise what my products were about. This I did and lo and behold, it worked perfectly.
Christmas in The Koo Valley is a complete contrast to what we'd know back in our Plettenberg Bay days. Coastal towns have long been the destination of choice for South Africans holidaying over the festive season. In their thousands they return each year and the locals wait for them with eager anticipation of the lovely lolly that they part with so willingly. But when they come, a local's life becomes a nightmare round of unaccustomed queues in the supermarkets and banks, zero parking anywhere and sharing the beach and ocean with a mass of humanity who seemingly don't have any idea of the concept of personal space. But in the Koo the rhythms of life are uninterrupted, the pace steady and unhurried as ever. Even in the town of Montagu it's blissfully free of queus and traffic and looks for all the world like a normal day with people going calmly about their business. Where once I dreaded the craziness of the festive season, I now look forward to it each year with great excitement. It's become a very special time, a time to be spent with close family and new friends in the peace and tranquillity of Provenance Farm.
With our products labelled and bottled, we were ready to unveil them to the world; well, to Montagu actually, and the first opportunity arose in the form of the annual Night Christmas Market in the centre of the town. Besides the market, we had been lucky enough to secure orders from our old friends Pippa and John Saunderson Smith for their shop in Plettenberg Bay, as well as for 'Spaces', a wonderful barn of a shop in nearby Robertson. Now that we had something to work towards, production took on frenzied proportions and I was working long hours to ensure that we had enough stock. Jenna, Pete and I set up our stall at the market under the trees that were festively adorned with fairy lights. We had brought along our own yellowwood table on which we placed a green painted display stand and decorated it with pink straw, a milk bucket full of lavender and of course the bottles and jars of products. Soon there were eager customers that were interested and impressed with our wares and by the end of the evening we were happily counting out a respectable sum of earnings. To each of those customers we owe a debt of gratitude because without knowing it, they have buoyed up our confidences and confirmed to us that this growing passion for creating wonderful products is the right direction in which to head. May we never forget that it is for them and for all future customers that we will be creating our products and to their needs that we must always be conscientiously attentive.