A long struggle bears fruit

Headman Manyota, a developing farmer, farms citrus in the Kat River Valley near Fort Beaufort. Last year, he achieved a massive 874% increase in production over 2013. Grant Hollins visited his farm.

A long struggle bears fruit
Headman Mantoya Photo: Grant Hollins

In pursuit of his childhood dream of becoming a farmer, 24 years ago Headman Manyota purchased a citrus farm through
the Ciskei privatisation programme. The 63ha farm Oakdene is situated in the Kat River Valley near Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape. in 2014, Headman experienced his first significant success, increasing his citrus production from 73 bins (73 400kg) last season to no fewer than 635 bins (635 400kg) this season.

While he attributes this triumph to careful planning in tree cultivation, he recognises that it is also the culmination of a long
and determined struggle.

“Trees only begin to bear fruit after five years and are best after 10 years, so one has to plan well in advance,” says Headman.

“But it hasn’t been easy. There were so many challenges after I bought this farm.”

Growing up near Middeldrift in the Eastern Cape, Headman developed an early love for farming from helping out on a neighbouring citrus farm. After matriculating, in 1983, he worked on the mines to fund his studies in agricultural extension at Fort Cox Agricultural College. He then worked at the college for three years, moving from vegetable production to fruit production, and finally to manager in the agro-economics department in his final year.

He acquired Oakdene farm in 1990. Despite the advanced age of the orchards, Headman was confident about his prospects of success.

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“The youngest orchard was planted in 1965 – three years older than me,” he says. Others were planted in 1937 and 1947. “But I was determined to make it in the sector.” Unfortunately, things soon became even more difficult for Headman, when in 1997 the guidance, mechanisation and financial support he had been receiving from the Ciskei Agricultural Corporation (Ulimocor) came to a standstill. He was determined to persevere, however.

“When Ulimocor liquidated, times became very dark for us [the 10 farmers benefiting from the corporation],” says Headman.

“But although I couldn’t see the future of the farm getting better, I was optimistic that my determination would see me through.”

Initially, Headman tried to continue farming, but was eventually forced to seek employment elsewhere to support his family. He spent three years away from them working for the income-generating projects division of the department of social development
in Port Elizabeth.

Back to farming
In 2003, Headman began working for Fort Cox once more. By this stage, he had completely stopped his citrus farming at Oakdene; the orchards had died out and the prospects of his becoming a citrus farmer looked bleak. In 2007, hope was reignited when he joined the emerging farmer programme of Riverside Enterprises. Riverside is predominantly owned by the Lona Group and exports mainly citrus to the European market.

Colin Painter of Riverside Farms started the out-grower programme in 2006 to develop citrus production in the Kat River Valley by assisting emerging farmers in becoming commercial producers. Through the programme, Headman was assisted with securing funding through the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), organising contractors to secure infrastructure, and arranging for trees to be planted.

Despite this assistance, however, Ulimocor’s collapse had left him worse off than when he had bought the farm 17 years earlier, a fact that Susan Herman, manager of Riverside Farms’ Emerging Farmer programme, is quick to point out. “What makes Headman’s success even more outstanding is that he had no trees left in his orchards when he came on board in 2007,” she explains. “He had to start from scratch and has done extremely well to produce 635 bins this year.”

Headman is grateful for Riverside’s foresight in initiating the programme, and says it has contributed greatly to his success, and that of the other erstwhile Ulimocor farmers.

“Nobody else was prepared to take the risk to come to our rescue,” he says. “But Riverside took that risk. We’re here today because of them.”

Under Riverside’s guidance, Headman has increased the size of his operation to 5 000 trees on 38ha. He intends to extend this to 45ha in the near future. He grows mainly navels in orchards planted in 2007 and 2011 respectively. Riverside assisted in sourcing the trees.

In order to prolong his harvesting season, which lasts from early May until September, he has planted equal quantities of early-, middle- and late-bearing cultivars (navels, Clementines, Lane Late, Newhall and Nova) and emphasises the importance of adhering to strict schedules for irrigation, fertilisation, tree maintenance and pest control. He employs eight permanent employees who live nearby. They are supplemented from January until the end of harvesting in September with 16 casual labourers.

Headman attributes the huge increase in production to the maturing of trees, a strict regimen of pest control, and a strategy of strengthening the trees in his orchard prior to fruit-bearing age. “I initiated a strategy to make the trees bigger and stronger so they can bear more fruit,” he says. “From July to February we also fertilise both the soil and irrigation water, and try to ensure that trees can absorb the optimum amount of nutrients.”

Headman employs eight permanent staff, who are assisted for nine months of the year by 16 casual labourers.
Seen here, from left, are five of the permanent workers:
Mbuyiseli Maseti, Elliot Zozi, Mzwamadoda Matikinca, Bonisile Heath and David Mereko.

Headman’s success has come despite numerous infrastructure and equipment challenges. A lack of adequate fencing allows animals from surrounding communities to roam the orchards almost at will, often causing significant damage to crops. And having no tractors, trailers or boom sprayers makes daily activities more difficult and time-consuming to complete.

However, rather than sitting back and bemoaning the lack of machinery, Headman chooses to be proactive in finding solutions. In August 2013, for example, he travelled to the USA as part of a programme arranged by the national department of agriculture, geared towards improving farm management skills. He applied for the programme through Fort Cox, where he currently works as a farm manager.

“I was very impressed with the Amish, because they farm without any machinery. Perhaps I can utilise some of the techniques in my operation.”

Stopping theft
Further evidence of Headman’s positive approach is his creative method of eliminating the danger of theft. “We don’t have any theft because the other citrus farmers and I are seen as people who can provide for the communities,” he says. “Not long after I bought the farm, the other citrus farmers and I sponsored a few soccer tournaments with prizes, and since then I’ve had no theft. We also provide jobs.”

Headman believes an unforeseen employment problem may present itself as the Kat River Valley further develops its orchards through fellow emerging farmers. “The valley is only at 10% of citrus production potential. When it’s developed they’ll need plenty of labour. Even now, the orchards aren’t in full production yet, and as the out-growers expand, the surrounding villages won’t be able to supply enough labour.”

Hands-on farming
Headman emphasises that for the region to attain this level of development, emerging farmers must work diligently in their pursuit of success. “New farmers must be prepared to sacrifice for farming and it’s essential to be hands-on. You must live your farming,” he says. He adds that emerging citrus farmers should learn as much as possible about potential risks to their harvest, and let their passion for farming carry them through tough times.

“You need to know your enemy in order to defend against them,” he says.

“When I think back on the sacrifices, the absences from my family, the challenges and hard times, I look out over the orchards and see a bright future again, and I know that when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, anything is possible.”

Phone Headman Manyota on 073 251 9233 or email him at [email protected].