Tested farming model the secret to co-op’s success

The Suurbraak Grain Farmers’ Co-operative in the Southern Cape recently won the Western Cape Agricultural Writers’ Association’s Emerging Farmer of the Year award. The group ascribes its success to Boet Pretorius’s ‘Farming for the Future’ model.

Tested farming model the secret to co-op’s success
The co-op currently averages about 0,8t/ ha canola, but aims to produce 1,6t/ha.
Photo: Glenneis Kriel
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Communal land in Suurbraak in the Southern Cape has been underutilised for generations. Since 2011, however, a co-operative comprising five farmers from the community has succeeded in making large parts of this land productive with the help of commercial farmer Dirk van Papendorp.

The co-op is made up of farmers Andy Harmse, Wilmar Adams, Chris Louw, Dirkie Willemse and Alan Jeftha, who ascribe their success to the ‘Farming for the Future’ production model developed by Boet Pretorius. (Farmer’s Weekly reported on the production systems of the co-op in ‘Co-op with a dynamic funding model’, in the issue of 29 May 2015.)

Farming for the future
Boet is one of many commercial farmers who lost their farms in the Zimbabwean land takeovers. One day, passing one of his old farms, he saw that it had fallen into disarray. When he approached the woman who had taken it over, she told him that no matter what she tried, she was unable to achieve the good production volumes he had.

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Boet agreed to help the woman and in doing so, developed his ‘Farming for the Future’ production model, a guide to help small-scale farmers farm successfully.

Members of the
Suurbraak Grain Farmers’ Co-operative (from left): Wilmar Adams, Dirkie Willemse, Chris Louw and Alan Jeftha.
“Production volumes of these farmers were obviously not as high as when the commercial farmers used to farm the land, because infrastructure has collapsed, resulting in farmers no longer having access to inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides,” explains Dirk.
“However, the farmers on the programme managed to produce significantly higher yield than farmers who weren’t following the programme, as they were using conservation farming practices that helped to reduce their production risks.”

The model consists of four principles:

  • Timeous production: Farmers must do things on time. For example, if a farmer needs to apply a pesticide now, he should not delay a day or week to do so. According to Dirk, this ethic is a key difference between an average farmer and a great farmer.
  • At standard: All production practices must be carried out correctly the first time. For example, if weed management requires the use of a certain product diluted to a specific volume and sprayed at a specific rate, farmers must ensure those requirements are met. Spraying too much or too little of a product or not diluting it correctly will result in wastage and damage, and could even result in the development of product resistance.
  • No wastage: This applies to many aspects of a farm’s operation. For example, a farmer should ensure that his spraying equipment is calibrated correctly.
  • Farm with joy: There are many easier ways to make money than farming, emphasises Dirk.“People who want to make it in the industry should have a passion for farming, otherwise they won’t succeed,” he says.

The Suurbraak co-operative has adapted Boet’s model to their farming requirements, and operate according to the following principles:

  • Conservation farming
  • Precision farming
  • Financial discipline
  • Training and education
  • Conservation farming

Alan explains that conservation farming is used as a cornerstone for production because it helps to improve sustainability.

“With conservation farming, we aim to disturb the soil as little as possible, so we make use of minimum tillage,” he says. “Stubble and as much plant material as possible is also left on the soil after harvesting to cover the soil. This helps to reduce water evaporation, improve the water-holding capacity of the soil and improve soil carbon levels – in effect soil health.”

Crops are rotated. The co-op’s members began with wheat, barley and canola in a rotation system, and have since also incorporated oats. A typical rotation on the high-potential soils would include wheat barely, canola, wheat, and barley undersown with lucerne. The poorer soils would include oats in combination with clovers and medics.

The length of the time under pastures increases with decreasing soil potential.

“Rotations are adapted according to yield and seasons. These however are flexible enough to accommodate changes to exploit financial opportunities as they arise,” says Dirk.

Caring for the enviroment
The farmers also have an environmental plan aimed at utilising the land in such a way as to leave it in a better condition than they found it. Both Swellendam Silcrete Fynbos and Eastern Rûens Shale Renosterveld are found in the region. The former has been classified as endangered while the latter has been classified as critically endangered, with less than 7% remaining in the lowlands of the Overberg.

The co-op sees a healthy ecosystem as vital for both the conservation of rare and threatened plants and animals, as well as the maintenance of healthy farming systems.

Livestock is managed carefully to prevent compaction and overgrazing.

During cultivation, the team takes great care to protect the soil against erosion. If livestock graze on the land, they are monitored carefully to prevent overgrazing and enough material is left on the land for follow-up crops.

A system of contour banks and waterways has been put in place to protect bare soil during the first phase of production against sheet erosion associated with heavy rains during thunderstorms. Efforts are made to eradicate alien plants, such as thistles and black wattle, which can have a negative economic impact during the cropping phase.

Precision farming
The practice of precision farming complements the group’s timeous and standard-specific production as well as its no-wastage ethic.According to Alan, grain production in Suurbraak has decreased significantly over the past 40 years due to lack of funding – farmers did not have access to fertiliser or good farming equipment.

As a result, most of the land became overgrown with renosterbos and Cynodon-type grasses. Soil fertility became so poor that the lands were no longer suited to grain production.

To address this situation, the co-op had land intended for production analysed by Technipharm. With the help of funding from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, bushes and unwanted material were cleared. The soil was tilled with a chisel plough and large quantities of lime and phosphate were applied according to Technipharm recommendations.

A financially sound operation
Financial discipline has been a defining factor in the success of the co-op.Dirk explains that the re-establishment of the lands was very expensive, ranging between R5 000/ha and R10 000/ha. So the group entered into an agreement with the provincial agriculture department where the department would carry out the land rehabilitation and production costs of the co-op’s initial 324ha farmland during their first year.

Thereafter, the members would themselves source the balance as government funding is phased out at the rate of 20%/ year over four years. The co-op has received funding of R7 million since 2011, and has itself contributed almost R1,8 million towards its production input costs.

The co-op business plan stipulates that each member is entitled to 20% of its gross income yearly, Alan explains. A producer’s land and his income are considered separate, with each producer responsible for his own land and earnings.

However, 10% of the annual gross harvest earnings is put towards the co-op’s central reserve fund, which is used for maintenance and upkeep of equipment.

The group are driven to make more money, Alan says. Presently, average production is still below the commercial average, but is improving each year.

From 2011 to 2014, the co-op’s average wheat production increased from 1,5t/ ha to 2,2t/ha. Its aim is to achieve 2,8t/ha to 3t/ha. Average barley production has increased from 1,5t/ ha to 2t/ha, and the aim is 3,5t/ ha. Canola currently achieves a yield of 0,8t/ha (aim: 1,6t/ ha), while oats achieves a yield of 1,6t/ha (aim: 2,5t/ha).

Training and mentorship
The Suurbraak Grain Farmers’ Co-operative feels that it would never have been able to unlock its potential were it not for Dirk.

“You need a mentor – someone who is willing to stand by you and help you at any time of the day. Dirk has been such a person for us,” Alan says. He adds that the Grain SA study roups have also taught the group a great deal about production,

Time to move on – and up
Alan and his fellow co-op members see their experience at Suurbraak as a learning experience, preparing them to become commercial farmers. “We feel that the time has now come for us to spread our wings and go bigger, to reach our full commercial potential.”

The co-op has increased the area under which it farms grain from 324ha in 2011 to 547ha in 2015. Suurbraak has a total of 2 145ha arable land with 46 community members with rental agreements. The average farm size is about 45ha per person.

The co-op rented the land from the municipality and some community members for about R200/ ha, compared with good-quality commercial land in the region that went for about R2 500/ha. However, the rehabilitation and development of this communal land cost between R5 000/ ha to R10 000/ha.

“The problem is that some of the community members are becoming envious of us,” Andy says. “There also isn’t much more room left for us to expand any further in Suurbraak. So the time has come for us to move on.”

Their dream is to buy a farm or acquire a 30-year lease of a farm with the assistance of the department of land reform. Ideally, they would like to farm on 1 000ha to 2 000ha.

Andy does not think any of this will happen soon, however.

“Good-quality soil is a scarce commodity in this region. Good land gets passed on from one generation to another. Chances are therefore very small that outsiders like us will break into the system. Yet, there is nothing wrong with hoping…”

Phone Alan Jeftha on 082 454 5553 or email Dirk Papendorp on [email protected].