Swartland wheat fields with Tabel Mountain in the background

Swartland is wheat country

Author Clifford Roberts; Photographer Johan Viljoen

There’s plenty of modern-day evidence of the Swartland’s long history in wine grape farming. While some of oldest examples of locally farmed cultivars exist in the region, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that grape production rose to its current status as significant agricultural crop. Grain farming on the other hand has been part of the region since the mid-1600’s, the dominant contemporary segment being wheat.

Wheat Industry Museum’s Harvest Day in Moorreesburg

It’s worthwhile pointing out that wheat is often incorrectly attributed as the source for the naming of the Swartland (‘black land’) region. This honour belongs to the endemic renosterbos (Dicerothamnus rhinocerotis) that once dominated its hills and not the ash that follows the farm practice of annually burning left-over wheat stalks.

As for the landscape, the lush green new-growth makes the Swartland a popular destination in late winter and early spring, but the months from October to December are equally exciting. This is harvest-time, when hulking combine harvesters and other machinery can be seen lumbering across the lands. It is also the time for the Swartlandskou in September and Moorreesburg’s harvest festival, traditionally held in the first week of December.

Swartland is the heart of wheat production in the Western Cape. Think of the Swartland and wheatfields will most often spring to mind. For older generations, it might conjure images of Trix Pienaar, renowned actor who incorporated Swartland stories into her work and popularised a breakfast grain brand through TV commercials. Pienaar was raised in the area; her family once owned the farm now known as home to Babylon’s Peak Family Wines.

This intersect of wine and grain remains to this day through farmers like Truter de Kock, Bertie Walters, Dolfie Walters, Paul Lambrechts, Boet le Roux and Danie du Toit who engage in both industries.

The legacy of wheat however is reflected in the central towns of Moorreesburg and Malmesbury, each home to large silo complexes; the names one comes across, like that of the village of Koringberg (wheat mountain) and destinations such as the Wheat Industry Museum.

Ransomes Treshing Machine from 1923 in the Wheat Industry Museum in Moorreesburg

As the Swartland Rural Heritage Survey of 2014 points out, the coming of the railway was an important milestone for the local wheat farming.

It reached Moorreesburg just four years after the town was established in 1898 and played a key part in it becoming major centre for the milling of wheat. The hamlet of Koringberg, founded in 1923, precedes Moorreesburg on the line to Cape Town and was first established as a railway siding. Co-incidentally, it was also near here that Hooggelegen – the one of the earliest loan farms of the region – was located.

Similarly, in Malmesbury, the other nexus for wheat, where the railway station came to be situated right alongside the central flour mill and grain silos.

Modern-day Malmesbury at night.

The authors of the Heritage Survey notes that “the establishment of the Wesgraan farmers’ co-operative in 1912 and in 1920 the Bokomo flour mill led to the production of grain in the Swartland on an industrial scale…Likewise the need for new large sheds and storage barns on farms was generated to accommodate agricultural machinery, and to store baled hay.”

“Koringberg was established in c1901 on Brakwater Farm (a portion of the farm Hooggelegen, which was granted in 1736 to Andreas Bester) after the railway line was completed. At that time, it was known as Warren’s Camp and consisted of a railway siding. It was founded as a Dutch Reformed parish at the railway station but only formally proclaimed a township in 1923.”

The Free Republic of Koringberg (Koringberg village)
Koringberg Dutch Reformed Church with a detail of the weather vane in the shape of an ear of wheat.

Wheat had become such a cornerstone of the Swartland by the 1960’s that the idea of a museum dedicated to the industry was born. Remarkably, it would be one of less than a handful such monuments in the world.

Exhibits at The Wheat Industry Museum in Moorreesburg

The old Dutch Reformed mission church building was to be its location and once restored, officially became home of the museum on February 10, 1978. Its exhibition today provides a history of wheat production and its development in South Africa, and includes a display of implements and machinery used down the ages. During the annual harvest festival, many of these are dusted off, started up and displayed in lively demonstrations. Livestock is brought in too, demonstrating for example how donkeys were once used to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Wheat is also a major focus of the annual Swartlandskou (Swartland Show), which has been held for over 80 years. The event was cancelled this year and has been scheduled for September 1-4 next year.

For more information, visit www.moorreesburgtourism.co.za and www.swartlandskou.co.za.

*The Wheat Industry Museum has re-opened. Visiting hours are Monday to Thursday, 08:00 to 16:30; Friday 08:00 to 16:00; and, weekends by appointment only. Call 022 433 1093.

Ripe Swartland wheat, ready for harvesting.

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