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.
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.
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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.