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Out of Africa

“Out of Africa”

Earning the unexpected pay-back of philanthropy.

Three years ago, Jim Schott received an unexpected phone call that led him to a philanthropic mission in South Africa that has enriched his life in a number of ways.

Land O’Lakes Inc. contacted Schott about a farmer-to-farmer program it sponsors to provide agricultural assistance to developing countries. Would he help establish a commercial goat dairy in South Africa?

"I’m not sure how they even found out about me," says Schott, founder of Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Niwot, Colo.

Although Schott was surprised, he didn’t hesitate to sign on. "It seemed like the natural thing to do — to share what we’ve discovered," he explains.

In fall 2002, Schott and his wife, Carol, traveled to Somerset East, a town on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where the government had purchased a 4,000-acre farm to return land to rural black residents and create viable agribusinesses. Cattle and chicken operations were already under way.

The Schotts’ goal was to help launch a dairy that could produce a premium goat cheese similar to Boulder Chevre, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy’s flagship product. The cheese would be sold to South African supermarkets under the "Bosberg Farm Fresh Fromage" label.

One of Schott’s initial challenges was to develop an educational program on the spot. "Until we got on the scene, it was hard to know what their needs were," he explains.

The farm had already purchased 50 goats, but not much else had been done. Over the next three weeks, Schott worked with the rural South African residents (known as "beneficiaries") to teach them animal management and financial aspects of running an agribusiness. Although the farm lacked commercial cheese-making equipment, Schott instructed the beneficiaries on preliminary aspects of cheese production and even produced a small batch of ricotta cheese.

Last fall, the Schotts made a second trip to Somerset East to continue their work. "It’s been tremendously rewarding," Schott says.

New insights. For one thing, the trips have expanded Schott’s entrepreneurial perspective. "In the past, I haven’t been as aggressive in seeking help with my business," he says. In South Africa, however, numerous outsiders like himself were brought in to share their expertise, which has given Schott a new appreciation for external counsel. With that in mind, Schott is taking steps to form an advisory committee for Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, comprised of various business leaders from his community.

The experience has also increased Schott’s self-confidence. A former college professor, Schott began his goat dairy 12 years ago, starting with five goats on a seven-acre farm. Today, Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy generates close to $1 million in annual revenue and produces 60,000 pounds of goat cheese in six varieties.

"Yet most of my learning has been on-the-job," Schott says. "I didn’t think of it as a body of knowledge that could be transferred." Working with the South Africans made Schott realize just how much dairy know-how he had picked up over the years.

Going with the flow. The second trip to Somerset East posed a number of unexpected challenges, which made Schott more aware of his problem-solving skills.

For starters, the Schotts expected milk and cheese production equipment to be in place when they arrived for their second stint. But it wasn’t and, worse, the herd of goats had been neglected.

A decision was made to sell the original 50 goats and buy 100 superior animals with better records from the Mozambique border. In addition to helping with this transaction, Schott also advised on the purchase of milking equipment and supervised its installation in the dairy, along with water and electricity. "Two days before we left, we were able to do what we came to do — get the beneficiaries up and running on the equipment," he says.

Post-apartheid aftermath. Although teaching animal management and dairy production was fairly straightforward, more subtle issues affected productivity due to the the legacy created by apartheid rule. Even though apartheid ended in 1994, it’s difficult to introduce entrepreneurship to people who previously have been punished for taking initiative, Schott observes: "Just changing the rules doesn’t accomplish a lot because you have several generations of people who don’t have efficacy as part of their thinking."

The Schotts hope to return to Somerset East this spring to continue their work. "We’ve fallen in love with South Africa and its people," says Schott. "We feel like we have friends 3,000 miles away across the globe."

Writer: T.J. Becker