I There’s no hold­ing back this Free State ice-cream maker, de­spite her vis­ual im­pair­ment

Home-made ice cream, the Ti­tanic, the eye dis­or­der cone dys­tro­phy and a small Free State town that was once the biggest cheese pro­ducer in the south­ern hemi­sphere… What (or who) do these four things have in com­mon? Jenny Bur­nett, that’s who.

go! Platteland - - CONTENTS - TEXT JO­HAN VAN ZYL

Jenny Bur­nett is par­tially sighted. She doesn’t re­ally make eye con­tact, yet you know she must “see” some­thing – she makes and sells ice cream, after all. We are lin­ger­ing next to a boundary fence on the Bur­nett fam­ily farm, Shaftes­bury, near Tweespruit in the Free State. We gaze across a dusty field of maize stub­ble at a bakkie that is slowly put­ter­ing in our di­rec­tion. Jenny hands over her cell­phone and says, “Look – this will give you a good idea of how I see the world.” Thanks to an app, you can turn the phone in any di­rec­tion and see the world through Jenny’s eyes. No mat­ter where you look, at least 60% of the pic­ture, specif­i­cally the area in the cen­tre, is ei­ther non-ex­is­tent or com­pletely out of fo­cus. You can only make out some­thing around the edges, which ex­plains why Jenny has to look beyond you in or­der to see you. It’s called cone dys­tro­phy – a rare ge­netic eye dis­or­der char­ac­terised by the loss of cone cells, the pho­tore­cep­tors re­spon­si­ble for cen­tral, de­tailed and colour vi­sion. Jenny laughs, by now ac­cus­tomed to peo­ple’s re­ac­tion of sur­prise. >

“She was six when she was di­ag­nosed,” says her mother, Ann. “One day we stood gaz­ing at the sea and ev­ery­one spoke about the beau­ti­ful ships on the wa­ter di­rectly in front of us, and Jen­nifer kept ask­ing: ‘Where? Where are the ships?’”

“Since then I have been clas­si­fied as par­tially sighted,” Jenny con­tin­ues, “but my fa­ther is of­fi­cially blind. Wait, here he comes now.”

The white Isuzu slowly crawls past us, the fam­ily’s spir­ited dogs run­ning ahead of it. Dan Bur­nett is un­aware of the group of peo­ple barely 2m away from him un­til Ann calls: “Dan! We’re over here!” The brake lights of the Isuzu flash red. Dan stops and gets out.

And you re­alise that in this house, Ann is not only a farmer, a farmer’s wife and the of­fi­cial driver, but also the eyes for both her hus­band and her daugh­ter.

TO START A BUSI­NESS in a part of the coun­try where work, money and tourist traf­fic are sparse, you need guts, and when you’re in Jenny Bur­nett’s shoes, you need it in spades.

After com­plet­ing a BA de­gree at Rhodes Univer­sity in 2007, in­volv­ing “great ef­fort and great stress”, Jenny re­turned to the West­min­ster dis­trict, about 90km east of Bloem­fontein, where her fam­ily has farmed for more than a cen­tury.

“My vis­ual im­pair­ment is not

some­thing that de­fines me com­pletely, but of course it has a huge in­flu­ence on my ex­pe­ri­ence and per­cep­tion of life. After univer­sity I wanted to come home to make some­thing of my­self. I re­alised that if no one from my gen­er­a­tion re­turned to help keep the com­mu­nity go­ing, it would even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear,” she says.

Jenny loves to cook and had all kinds of ideas about earn­ing an in­come, in­clud­ing start­ing an out­door play and learn­ing cen­tre for chil­dren, do­ing em­broi­dery and mak­ing jewellery. But then, in 2009, some­one asked her to make ice cream for a spe­cial event. It was at the time when terms like “hand­made”, “small-scale”, “ar­ti­sanal” and “bou­tique” were be­com­ing the buzz­words in food cir­cles. That first or­der for ice cream led to the birth of her trade­mark, Dairy Duchess.

There have been a few blun­ders along the way. Jenny’s eye prob­lem, which in­cludes colour blind­ness, caused her to once ac­ci­den­tally colour a large or­der of Turk­ish De­light ice cream green. She de­cided to save it by adding pis­ta­chios and more green colour­ing, and so Pis­tachi-rose was born, by mis­take. To­day, it is one of her top sell­ers.

In 2011, Jenny was named the win­ner of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, Forestry and Fish­eries’ Fe­male En­tre­pre­neur of the Year Award. The prize was a lap­top and R250 000, but she never saw a cent of the money.

After five “se­ri­ously frus­trat­ing” years dur­ing which she mostly sold her ice cream at mar­kets in Bloem­fontein, she was ready to throw in the towel in 2014. “Be­cause I only use the best in­gre­di­ents, which are very ex­pen­sive, many peo­ple sim­ply couldn’t pay R22 for a 250ml con­tainer of ice cream.

“I also, par­tic­u­larly in the be­gin­ning, lived un­der the il­lu­sion that I was a su­per­woman who could man­age ev­ery as­pect of the busi­ness my­self. Of course it’s pos­si­ble to man­age a mi­croen­ter­prise alone, but first you have to make peace with the fact that you can­not be bril­liant at pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing and sales and fi­nances.”

When old fam­ily friends, for­mer An­glo Plat­inum en­gi­neer Sid Oer­tel and his wife, Kate, re­tired to the nearby town of Tweespruit, it seemed as though they’d been sent just when Jenny was about to give up. (Read more about Tweespruit, the town where Sid grew up, over­leaf.) >

Sid and Al­lan Hoy, one of the but­ter mak­ers at a cheese fac­tory in Tweespruit that went bank­rupt in the ’80s after years of mis­man­age­ment, de­cided to re­vive the town’s dairy tra­di­tion and started mak­ing cheese un­der the name Tweespruit Coun­try Dairy. Six months later, when Al­lan had to re­tire for health rea­sons, Sid took over as cheese maker. And then they asked Jenny whether she wanted to move her ice-cream pro­duc­tion to their small fac­tory in town.

The cheese and ice-cream divi­sion of the en­ter­prise grew steadily, and two of their cheeses won prizes at the Bloem­fontein Show. But then fate struck again: on 31 May 2017 Sid woke up with numb­ness in his legs and hands, which wors­ened through the night. Ann and Jenny rushed him to hospi­tal in Bloem­fontein. By the next day he was com­pletely paral­ysed

“My fa­ther thinks I’ve taken leave of my senses, but I must di­ver­sify if I want to keep my head above wa­ter.”

and di­ag­nosed with Guil­lain-Barré syn­drome. Thanks to the quick ac­tions of a spe­cial­ist and emer­gency treat­ment with haemoglobin, Sid re­cov­ered, but un­for­tu­nately their joint en­ter­prise has had to close its doors.

FOR JENNY this meant an­other op­por­tu­nity to make a fresh start. On her own. She’s just started an “um­brella trade­mark”, The Ap­ple Shed, and has breathed new life into the for­mer ap­ple shed on the farm, paint­ing it in cheer­ful ice-cream shades.

This is where she’s placed the pantry cup­board that be­longed to her great­grand­mother on her mother’s side, Marge Arnold. The cup­board was the hand­i­work of her great-grand­fa­ther, Arthur Arnold, who hailed from Llan­dudno in Wales. He met Marge in Belfast, North­ern Ire­land, when he was a mem­ber of the team of car­pen­ters mak­ing fur­ni­ture for the Ti­tanic.

Jenny con­tin­ues to ex­per­i­ment with new flavours of Dairy Duchess ice cream, but also wants to try her hand at savoury dishes, bis­cuits, rusks, frozen con­ve­nience foods, and her grand­mother’s fa­mous Lady D’s le­mon syrup… and will pos­si­bly also re­alise an­other dream: open­ing a farm stall­cum-restau­rant where, on Sun­days, she can serve brunch and tra­di­tional farm­style Sun­day fare.

“My fa­ther thinks I’ve taken leave of my senses,” says Jenny, “but I must di­ver­sify if I want to keep my head above wa­ter, just like they’ve had to di­ver­sify the fam­ily busi­ness.”

The part­ners in the fam­ily ven­ture, which in­cludes their Ot­ter­shaw Beef­mas­ters herd, are Dan and Ann, along with Jenny’s un­cle and aunt, Arthur and Rose Gil­bert, who live on the neigh­bour­ing farm, Crich­ton. Of the 1 100ha arable land, about 500ha are ded­i­cated to sun­flow­ers, 300ha to maize (mostly for feed), and a small amount to teff. And they are par­tic­i­pat­ing in a seed­share project with young farm­ers in the dis­trict who can­not af­ford to buy land but who farm on 225ha of the fam­ily’s land, sup­ply­ing labour and ma­chin­ery. “We’ll see how it goes,” says Dan. “Yes, we’ll see,” says Jenny. And then they laugh be­cause – vis­ually im­paired or blind, or not – see­ing is see­ing, and be­liev­ing is be­liev­ing.

dairy­duches­sice­cream@gmail.com 082 923 4010

Jenny Bur­nett, the woman be­hind Dairy Duchess ice cream, here pho­tographed with Chance in the for­mer ap­ple shed on the farm, which she has painted in ice-cream colours. The sea­green pantry cup­board is the hand­i­work of her great-grand­fa­ther, Arthur Arnold, who made fur­ni­ture for the Ti­tanic.


Jenny has in­tro­duced nearly 30 ice­cream flavours al­ready. The most re­cent ad­di­tion is poached pear.

LEFT The Free State peach trees were in full bloom when Plat­te­land vis­ited in Septem­ber. Be­fore the sum­mer rains came, the plains around West­min­ster looked so bleak and dry that even a rusty old wreck pro­vided a lit­tle colour.

Dozer, the Bur­netts’ boer­boel-great Dane cross, lies on a car­pet of leaves in the gar­den.

Dan and Ann Bur­nett, and Jenny in the mid­dle, at the small ceme­tery on their farm. In the back­ground is the farm­house and Jenny’s cot­tage, which used to be the farm of­fice and the only class­room of the farm school.

LEFT The farm­house, one of the orig­i­nal West­min­ster Es­tate houses, was built in 1904 – this sepia photo is be­lieved to have been taken in 1907. The Bur­netts say a black wax some­times oozes through the floor planks be­cause a sec­tion of the house was at one time oc­cu­pied by one of the first cheese fac­to­ries in the area.

Chance, Jenny and Ann at an old ce­ment reser­voir on the farm. In sum­mer, when there’s more wa­ter in the dam, it is a pop­u­lar swim spot.

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