The farm is a picturesque sight in the mid-afternoon highveld sunshine as my lungs soak up the smell of pink pea blossom and French lavender. We are about 20 minutes from Sandton Ė but a million miles from the urban madness.
Upon meeting the owner and manager of Pico-Gro micro herb farming enterprises, Erika Oberholzer, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary farmer. With her manicured nails and refined manner, she is a picture of pastoral elegance and sophistication.
Our visit started with a tour of the greenhouses, followed by a lunch of her renowned micro herb salad. I now understand why these intensely flavoured 'mini' herbs are so special and fast becoming one of Woolworth's fresh produce bestsellers.
Erika is married to Machiel, an engineer, with whom she raised 2 beautiful children Marietjie and Walter.
Erika's persistent nature and positive outlook are both hallmarks of the strong character that has led to her success. "Every morning I wake up feeling as enthusiastic and excited as I did the day I started," says Erika.
With her last full-time jobs at the Agriculture Research Counsel and Goldfields, Erika did not expect to find herself becoming a major player in horticulture. She was 32 when she stepped in to a greenhouse for the first time and that was the day she discovered a love for growing that has dominated her life ever since. What initially began as the opportunity to propagate a plant in a friend's nursery, eventually gave rise to a remarkable idea in sustainable farming.
Established in 1995, Pico-Gro at first specialized in cut flowers and essential oils, but several years of successful farming and an award for 'Female Farmer of the year in Gauteng', Erika became curious to explore new ideas. She spent countless hours researching farming trends, horticulture and culinary herbs before she began experimenting on an interesting concept known as micro herbs.
Micro herbs are simply greens, lettuces, and herbs that are harvested when they are young, and only two and a half centimetres tall.
2011 proved to be a major turning point for Erika as she was given her first order to supply micro herbs to Woolworths. "After my introduction to the Woolworths fresh produce team, what followed was a very exciting, breathtaking whirlwind of planning, learning and preparing, " says Erika.
At Pico-Gro, production never stops; the process is extremely labour intensive. The workers are busy seven days a week, sowing the seeds, washing and refilling the trays, cutting the micro herbs and moving them over to be packaged. The herbs are carefully cut and inspected by hand to ensure only the finest quality product is sent to the packing area. "I buy 30 pairs of paper scissors a month to use when cutting the herbs and they have to be sharpened daily," says Erika. The harvesting window is a maximum of three days so scheduling is critical.
The complexity of the entire process lies in keeping the herbs free from any fungal diseases, due to the minimum air circulation in the densely packed seedlings, the correct amount of irrigation and irrigation times as well as maintaining a pure, clean environment for the herbs to grow.
Erika believes intensely in following her instinct when making key business decisions, although her intellectual ability is certainly beyond question. With qualifications in botany and biochemistry, Project Management and a Masters degree in Philosophy in applied ethics with a focus on emerging farmer development, this remarkable woman is clearly not short on skills.
But it is her unconventional approach to business, combined with an unwavering positivity; her intuition and passion as a compass that meant success was inevitable, in navigating the intricacies of the business world.
Erika's contribution to sustainability doesn't end with her horticultural pursuits. She also consults to a number of mining houses on social development and empowering the community.
She also walks the talk: In an economic climate rife with unemployment and labour unrest, she has managed to create employment for over 50 people, which are permanent staff. Operating from her vibrant, seven-hectare farm and ably assisted by her loyal right hand woman, Adelaide Zuma, who has been with her for over 18 years, she has built an economically viable, as well environmentally sustainable business, changing and enriching many lives in the process. Pico-Gro has displayed how smarter farming leads to better food and a healthier environment for all.
In a time where business is continually focused on cutting costs and ultimately quality, Erika has stood steadfast, always striving to maintain her high standards of quality, perfectly aligning her with the Woolworths brand which stands for quality, social development and a positive environmental contribution.
Ashleigh Van Der Westhuizen