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Juanita Bellingan never dreamt of farming when she was growing up.

Yet today the 25-year-old angora, sheep and game farmer from East London is making a name for herself – not only in her district, but in the industry as a whole.

She’s was the youngest provincial finalist for the 2018 AgriSA Young Farmer of the Year competition – and the only woman.

Bellingan says she’s always considered herself a practical person, and couldn’t sit in front of books all day.

“I love working with my hands,” she explains.

And it was this that prompted her to pursue agriculture in high school. The lure of a more rural life contributed to the decision and she managed to land a study grant to specialise in angora farming after school.

But the budding farmer struggled to find work after her studies and started to wonder whether it was because she’s a woman.

Bellingan says the industry is a challenging one – money is tight and many job adverts specify they only want male candidates.

“This infuriated me. You don’t have to be a man to manage a farm. We’re not in the 1980’s,” she says.

In addition many of the positions require experience, making it almost impossible for a young woman to gain a foothold in the industry.

But she refused to give up.

On 4 January 2016, aged just 22, she started working at Kruidfontein – a 20 000 hectare farm in the Karoo. She says the brothers who own the farm went out on a limb to give her the chance to prove herself, and she grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning – many of the farmworkers are old enough to be her father (or grandfather) and not used to taking orders from a young woman. She says she patiently walked the farm with them, collecting sheep in the veld and getting to know them, until she earned their trust.

She still swears by this hands-on approach.

“I’m not a bakkie-boer and I can’t watch other people work, and just stand watching idly. It’s important to work alongside the people on the farm. They get respect for you because you’re not just telling them what to do.”

Bellingan says she finds as a woman you have to work harder than men to earn your place and prove yourself.

“I had to work twice as hard to earn my place in the industry.”

But she concedes employing a female farmer means running the risk of having someone up and leave to get married. Bellingan says however, it would take someone extraordinary to make her consider leaving the farm.