Co-op boosts smallholder farmers’ success

Since forming a co-op three years ago, smallholder vegetable farmers Johannes Arendse, Joseph Bantom and Polly Theunissen have expanded their business and gained access to assistance that will help them grow even further. Denene Erasmus reports.

Co-op boosts smallholder farmers’ success
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In its early days, Genadendal was known as the pantry of the Cape. Vegetables were grown here to feed the growing settlement at the foot of Table Mountain. As one heads out of Genadendal towards Greyton about 5km away, hills rise up
high on the right hand side, but to the left the earth is flat, transformed into a tartan pattern of different vegetable patches.

This is communal land and the people who farm here each rent about 5ha from the local municipality. Johannes Arendse, Joseph Bantom and Polly Theunissen all grew up in Genadendal in the Western Cape. Their fathers were farmers and they are following in their footsteps, says Polly.

Until three years ago, they each farmed their own plot of land. Then they were offered support from government on condition that they formed a co-op and started working together. The grant from the department of agriculture totalled about R2,1 million, most of which was provided in the form of implements and machinery – a tractor, a truck, two bakkies and chemical sprayers – and production inputs. Thanks to this support, the three were able to expand the area on which they farmed from 30ha to 50ha. When in full production they provide employment for up to 50 people.

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Co-op members (from left) Polly Theunissen, Johannes Arendse and Joseph Bantom.

Grant from Potatoes SA
The co-op plants a variety of vegetables, including broccoli, spinach, butternut and beans. But the backbone of its farming business is potatoes.

“We have a good local market for potatoes. We can sell most of our crop directly to the public,” says Joseph.

It is fortunate for them that local demand for their potatoes is so strong, as they do not have the facilities to brush or wash the potatoes they grow. This means that they cannot supply supermarkets or fresh produce markets. But they are optimistic that this will change over the next few years.

“Hopefully, with the support from Potatoes SA, which we’ll start receiving in July, we can start looking at bringing in the equipment needed to prepare the potatoes for the formal market,” says Joseph.

Spud lovers
Joseph became involved with Potatoes SA in 2014 and the organisation invited the co-op to apply for one of the grants available for smallholder potato farmers. The conditions of the grant require them to have at least 5ha of land available to plant potatoes and access to good-quality water.

Neither requirement was a problem. The co-op has the land and already has a semi-permanent irrigation system in place and access to enough water from the Riversonderend to cultivate at least 100ha. The grant from Potatoes SA will support them for the next five years. In the first year they will receive all the inputs needed to plant 5ha of potatoes; this includes 800 bags of potato seed, as well as all the other inputs such as fertiliser and sprays.

“In the second year we have to contribute a percentage of the inputs ourselves,” Joseph explains. “Every year after that, the percentage we contribute gets bigger until, after five years, we’re able to farm independently, without the grant from
Potatoes SA. I’m convinced we’ll make a success of this opportunity – each of us already has more than 20 years of farming experience in this area, so we know the challenges.”

He adds that he has heard about diets that exclude potatoes and other starches, but thinks they’re “just a money-making scheme”.

“Here, where I come from, you grow up with a potato on your plate at every dinner. You can’t take the potato from my plate!”

One of the co-op’s biggest challenges has been unreliable buyers. For example, many of the smallholder farmers in
the area used to plant large amounts of broccoli and cauliflower to supply a local factory. But the factory went bankrupt
and failed to pay the farmers for crops they had already delivered to the factory. This was a considerable setback for the farmers, who rely on income from one crop to provide the input costs for the next.

Another challenge has been securing tenure for the land they farm on. According to Johannes, they currently have no lease agreement in place for the land as Genadendal’s commonage is being transferred to the community. The process should be finalised by September this year, whereupon the farmers will have to re-apply for rental agreements.

The land will be transferred to a communal property association (CPA), which will be managed by a committee chosen by the community. According to Johannes, the local farmers feel there is no real risk that they will forfeit the right to continue farming on the land they are currently using. But he adds that the co-op is hoping to secure a long-term lease once the land has been transferred to the CPA.

Polly, Johannes and Joseph produce about 35ha of vegetables under irrigation, but they have the land and water available to expand their business. They say that they are considering converting to livestock production. In this case, the area under irrigation will be used to produce animal feed.

Production notes
The co-op has about 35ha under irrigation and the vegetables are grown on a rotational basis. “We’ve developed this rotation system, where, if we planted a vegetable that’s harvested above ground, like spinach or broccoli, the one season, we follow it with a vegetable that grows under the soil, like carrots or potatoes, the next season,” explains Joseph.
Between vegetable plantings they sow oats, working it into the soil as green manure.

The area has sandy loam soils with good water retention. The fertiliser programme for each camp is based on a soil analysis conducted every five years. “Lately we’ve started converting to using more organic fertiliser, because we saw that the quality of our soil was starting to deteriorate from relying only on chemical fertiliser,” says Johannes.

They make their own compost using chicken manure. Before planting they apply at least 15t/ ha of this compost. After planting, if the young plants need additional nutrition, some compost is applied on the ridges between the plants. The co-op also follows a preventative spraying programme designed for each type of vegetable, according to its needs, by a consultant.

Growth prospects
“If we want to continue farming with vegetables and expand the area on which we farm, we’ll have to get a packhouse and cold storage facilities,” says Polly. These facilities for adding value on the farm are crucial if the co-op is to access more reliable markets, such as the retail chains.

According to Polly, they have already been approached by some supermarkets that are able to offer them a position as contract growers, but they will have to be able to wash and/or pack the vegetables, so that the produce is ready to go directly onto the shelves. The co-op is also considering switching from vegetable farming to livestock production.

It has access to a 350ha farm which Polly, Johannes and Joseph want to start developing as soon as an environmental impact assessment has been completed on the land. If they can forge ahead with this plan they will use the irrigated land where they now plant vegetables to grow crops they can use to produce their own feed.

But even if they convert from vegetable to livestock farming, they will still continue growing potatoes for the spud-loving local market, says Joseph.

For more information, phone Joseph Bantom on 082 762 6297 or send him an email at [email protected].

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Denene hails from a sugar cane farm in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, but after school she relocated to the Cape Winelands to study, for many years, at the University of Stellenbosch. She worked as a journalist for Farmer’s Weekly since 2009 and in 2015 moved to Johannesburg as Deputy editor for the magazine. In 2016 she was appointed editor, and at the end of 2021, she stepped down from her position to pursue her journalism career.