Celebratio – celebrate life!
The farm Celebratio, situated between Oudtshoorn and Calitzdorp in the Little Karoo, is owned by a third-generation Meyer who refused to take “no” for an answer when experts said the land was not suitable for the cultivation of any crops.
It was first called Langverwacht and Gerhard remembers as a child he used to enjoy visiting his grandparents on the farm, but he knew circumstances weren’t always ideal. “I would say they were constantly battling to survive,” recalls Gerhard. Grandfather Esias Meyer farmed with maize, lucerne and ostrich.
When his father Marthinus (Mannie) inherited the farm, he decided to rent it out and continue his career as a school principal. Mannie grew up on the farm and went to school in Oudtshoorn, and upon retirement returned to his home town. He decided to farm on a piece of Langverwacht with lucerne and ostrich.
Mannie died in 2006 after falling ill at the longest black tie table in the world organised by Gerhard as founding member and festival director of the Cultivaria Festival in Paarl, Western Cape. The two brothers, Gerhard and Herman inherited the farm. Herman is a banker and Gerhard a successful businessman from Paarl. The two brothers spoke about the future of the farm and while Herman wasn’t interested in farming, Gerhard realised the potential and bought out his brother’s share.
The first thing Gerhard did was to change the name. “I wanted to develop this farm into something spectacular, I wanted to honour the generation of Meyers who kept the farm in the family, despite all the hardship they endured,” says Gerhard.
Celebratio means “Celebrating good times and memories” and Gerhard wanted this to become the motto of the farm.
He also decided not to continue farming the way his grandfather and father did. Due to climate change and other factors, farming maize for example was not a viable option anymore.
"I went the scientific way and found the one place in the world with the exact micro climate as that of Celebratio. It ended up being the south of Israel."
Gerhard went to the south of Israel in 2006, where he visited local farms and met the farmers. “I’ll never forget the one farmer, an elderly man, who gave me some of the best advice I ever got in my life. He said: ‘Son, as long as you plant Bible fruits, you can’t go wrong’,” recalls Gerhard.
It was during this visit that Gerhard decided to farm with pomegranates.
“In Israel the soil and water are just as saline as on my farm. Water fit for farming is extremely expensive in Israel and in fact some of the world’s most expensive agricultural water.
“We only get two regular irrigation rights per year and this is only if there is water available. I knew this would be one of my biggest challenges,” says Gerhard.
He drilled for fresh water at five different sites on the farm, but the results were the same every time: salient water.
Gerhard faced a number of challenges: Celebratio was in a water scarce area and regular irrigation rights weren’t guaranteed; and his water and soil were extremely salient, so much so that experts told him the land was not suitable for the cultivation of any crops.
He refused to let this dampen his enthusiasm.
As luck would have it, Gerhard met a hotel guest who was staying at his (Gerhard’s) hotel in Paarl. When Gerhard greeted him one day, they started talking and it turned out the man was a membrane technologist who does consultation work on desalination (reverse osmosis).
This seemed to be a possible solution and Gerhard decided to set up a reverse osmosis plant on the farm, which would be used during the dry years when no fresh water is available. To date, it is still the only reverse osmosis plant used for farming purposes in the Little Karoo.
He also decided to build a dam, which neighbouring farmers thought “ridiculous”, seeing that it’s such a water scarce area. When full, the dam can hold up to 150 000m3 of water. So when there is water, Gerhard makes optimal use of it.
“I realised the only way the farm would be economically viable was if I plant high value and water-wise crops. Pomegranates fit the profile,” says Gerhard.
He was the first to only farm with pomegranates in the Little Karoo and, to top it all, the first 10 hectares of pomegranates were planted in November 2008 during the biggest drought the area has seen in more than 66 years. There were no regular irrigation rights and he had to rely on the reverse osmosis plant to ensure the tiny trees survived the drought.
Being the independent thinker he is, Gerhard decided to plant the first 10 hectare on the part of the farm which got the worst marks when the soil was tested. “Ergonomist Oupa Vermeulen, who has since become a trusted advisor and friend of Celebratio, was extremely sceptical and suggested I started planting on the ‘better’ soil. I decided against it and instead asked him to help me improve the quality of the bad soil. My viewpoint was if you can make it work on the worst soil on the farm, it can only get better,” recalls Gerhard.
With Oupa’s help they ripped up the soil, adding tons of gypsum and organic material. They made ridges on which they planted the trees and covered the soil close to the tiny trees with wooden chips to keep the soil cool and to “bring the soil back to life” with micro-organisms living inside.
Within two years they saw the results with earthworms and other micro-organisms returning to the once barren soil. The improvement of the soil is an ongoing process and Gerhard and this team go to tremendous effort to keep it stabilised.
“We installed probe monitors on every hectare and we monitor this daily. The aim was to restrict the growth of the roots to the top 40cm of the soil to protect the tree against the salient soil down below.”
The original planting of 10ha was followed by 20ha of the Wonderful cultivar in 2010, another 2ha in 2014 and another 15ha in 2015. In order to maintain control over the product and quality, a brand-new packhouse and coldroom facility was constructed in time for the 2017 harvest. This has enabled Celebratio to pack for other producers in the Little Karoo. The packhouse is Global Gap certified and annually creates 70 additional jobs in the area that is burdened by problems with the ostrich market and extreme drought, leading to some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Gerhard permanently moved to the farm in October 2017. In a short period of time, Celebratio has become a landmark in the Klein Karoo. The function venue is up and running, one can book a farm stay in one of the cottages or manor house on the farm or attend a music concert under the magical Little Karoo night sky. Group accommodation is also available and a number of schools from the Eastern and Northern Cape have used Celebratio as their "home base" during their visit to the Klein Karoo and Southern Cape.
An exclusive range of bags and homeware items, made from fabric especially designed for Celebratio, can be bought online. The range consists of handbags, aprons, scatter cushions, table cloths, place mats, chairs and other furniture. In the past season (2020) Celebratio's handcrafted pomegranate juice was launched, which is available from selected health shops in the Western Cape. Each 500 ml bottle contains the juice of between four and five pomegranates. The juice is made from the arils only that are removed by hand on the farm, put through a slow juicer and then immediately frozen. No preservatives or bottling agent are added.
On the agricultural side, the farm has embarked on a programme to ensure healthy soil and eco-friendly farming.
The area is still in the grip of a 6-year long drought and the farmers have been forced to find new water sources and explore alternative farming methods. Other farmers have bought into the idea of planting Wonderful pomegranates and in August 2021 more than 200 hectares of the variety will be planted in the Klein Karoo region, with 800ha more to follow. The area is known for it beautiful red, sweet pomegranates and the idea is to pack and export the pomegranates under its own brand: Karoo Wonderful Pomegranates.
“I invite people to come and visit Celebratio and create their own memories to celebrate for years to come,” says Gerhard.