Farmer programme results in higher yields and better lives

Increasing yields tenfold is a feat that every farmer dreams of, but few realise. Yet, for the past 20 years, Grain SA, through its Farmer Development Programme, has quietly assisted numerous farmers in achieving exactly that. Lindi Botha visited three beneficiaries to find out more.

Dryland maize
Sizwe Ngwenya achieves 5t/ha with his dryland maize.
Photo: Lindi Botha

Mentorship paves the way to success

As the son of a farmer, Sizwe Ngwenya never dreamt of anything other than having his own successful farming enterprise, and he proved his commitment early on.

While still at school, he was given a 5ha maize field near Piet Retief in Mpumalanga by his father, and soon increased his land to 9ha.

Ngwenya was Grain SA’s 2016 Smallholder Farmer of the Year.

But the real change came in 2012 when he joined Grain SA’s Farmer Development Programme. This helped him increase his yield from 1t/ha to 5t/ ha, and in 2016 he was crowned Grain SA Smallholder Farmer of the Year. At that stage, he was farming 50ha, and has since progressed to becoming an entry-level commercial farmer on 108ha.

He has also added soya and dry beans to his crop rotation, spreading his risk through diversification.

Ngwenya says that he can see a huge difference in his farm since he started.

“Every time I attend a study group I learn more and can do better. I rotate my lands to prevent disease build-up and alternate the chemicals to prevent resistance from developing in pests and diseases. Taking soil samples is another important lesson I learnt. It was a real eye-opener to realise I could test the soil to see what it needed to produce optimally.”

As part of his continual quest to improve his farming, Ngwenya seeks out larger commercial farmers for advice and historical data for the area.

“That way, I can see rainfall patterns and make provision for dry years. It’s important to speak to as many farmers as possible to build a good network paves the way to success so you have people to advise you when you have a problem.

“I belong to a WhatsApp farmers’ group so we can solve problems together and help each other. You need to have the right people around you who can add to your knowledge and keep you motivated.”

He stresses the importance of expanding gradually, not jumping from, say, 1h to 50ha in one season.

“You learn many lessons in between those jumps, so if they’re small, those lessons don’t cost you as much and you can adjust gradually.

“Record-keeping is also crucial to keep track of input costs and real farming income. For this reason, I keep my personal bank account separate from the business, so I don’t think I have a lot of money to spend when I actually don’t!”

From barely subsisting to turning a profit

Enoch Khumalo started farming as soon as he was old enough to tend the small piece of land on which his family grew maize for the household. Planting seed held back from the previous year’s crop, and applying manure as fertiliser, the family harvested about 0,5t on the 1ha field. This was just enough to feed the family.

From left: Muzi Hlongwana, Enoch Khumalo and Jurie Mentz in front of Khumalo’s bakkie, which he bought with the profits of his maize crop.

In 2008, Khumalo started attending Grain SA’s Farmer Development Programme, and over the past 10 years has increased his yield to 7t/ ha by following the principles taught and by using improved cultivars. Consequently, he has been able to expand his croplands from 1ha to 9ha.

Initially, he used oxen to pull the implements; today he uses a four-row planter to plant the seeds and fertilise in a single pass.

“We also used to harvest by hand, but now it’s done mechanically. Everything is so much easier and faster, and the bigger yield means more money for inputs, so I can keep growing.”

Government has provided tractors to the small-scale farmers in the Sheepmoor area in Mpumalanga, on condition they are maintained. Grain SA offers training to the farmers to service the tractors and change the oil filters to ensure that the machines are kept in good condition.

Khumalo has access to a no-till planter as well as a conventional planter.

“We’ve been taught about the benefits of no-till. This is the method I use in the years when I don’t need to lime the soil. When I do apply lime, I have to mix it into the soil and then I use the conventional planter.”

He adds that applying lime has probably been the most positive action he has taken on his land.

“One of the first things I learnt when I joined the study groups was that without conducting soil samples and correcting accordingly, I wouldn’t see an increase in yield. Knowing how much lime to apply to neutralise acidity in the soil so that the other elements can be absorbed is what ensured a turning point on my farm.”

He is quick to add that his passion for farming makes a real difference.

“I love the smell of the soil and being in the field. So I listened when my mentors spoke, and absorbed all the information I could to improve my crop. That’s how I went from subsistence farming, with nothing left to sell at the end of the season, to being able to sell half my crop, use a quarter for animal feed, and have the rest for home consumption.”

This extra income has meant he has been able improve his living standards, and realise his dream of buying a bakkie. He is still keen to have his own tractor, and with the income from a few more harvests, this too will become a reality.

From farm labourer to successful maize grower

Samson Shuwisa started his life in agriculture as a farm labourer. In 2007, he was given land by government near Sheepmoor in Mpumalanga as part of the land reform process, and decided to embark on his own farming journey.

Samson Shuwisa was a finalist in the 2017 Grain SA Smallholder Farmer of the Year competition.

“In the first year, I planted open-pollinated maize without any fertiliser and ended up with a yield of 6t off my 2ha,” he recalls.

“I then heard about the Farmer Development Programme and began attending its study groups. My eyes opened as I realised the importance of proper planning, and getting the timing right for planting, pesticide and herbicide applications. I also got to understand the importance of planting good seed, and started planting Dekalb’s Roundup Ready maize.”

The benefits were quickly evident: Shuwisa progressed from an initial 3t/ha to 7t/ ha, and today achieves 10t/ha. He has also increased the extent of his maizelands; he now farms on 25ha.

In 2017, he was a finalist in the Grain SA Smallholder Farmer of the Year competition.

Shuwisa makes a good living from his small farm, and, importantly, has been able to send his children to school. He is also proud to have given employment to members of his community and is eager to share his knowledge with other farmers.

Shuwisa admits that he faced difficulties during the recent drought, but saving money from every harvest helped him through this tough period. His savings have enabled him to buy a small truck to transport his maize to the mills, as well as a tractor.

His long-term goal is to expand his land further and progress to commercial farmer level.

Email Jurie Mentz at [email protected].