When it comes to agricultural empowerment projects, The Fort Hare Dairy Trust (FHDT) near Alice in the Eastern Cape is an exception to the rule. Mike Burgess discovered that the initiative is driven by top dairy farmers, while its modern, productive dairy farm allows students to merge theory, practical skills and good old-fashioned hard work before facing the competitive agricultural world alone.
AMADLELO AGRI WAS established in 2004 by 70 commercial dairy farmers from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, to spearhead a unique empowerment project on the outskirts of Alice in the Eastern Cape. The Fort Hare Dairy Trust (FHDT) is a profit-based dairy initiative. Shareholders include the University of Fort Hare, which allows interns to learn hands-on about dairy farming. “Our philosophy has always been that commercial farmers have the knowledge and skills, and that we need to transfer these,’’ explains chief executive and dairy farmer Jeff Every. The interns are supervised by a young black manager, trained by Amadlelo farmers. Formerly from Venda and educated in animal production at the Pretoria Technikon, 31-year-old Leonard Mavhungu first arrived in the Eastern Cape in 2005, after a recruitment agent put him in contact with Amadlelo.
Leonard was flown to Port Elizabeth, driven to Jeff’s home, interviewed and subsequently offered the opportunity to work on various top dairy farms owned by Amadlelo farmers. “They said they’d move me from farm to farm so I could gain experience to eventually run an entire farm,” says Leonard. Humble, eager and hardworking, he was an instant hit with the Amadlelo farmers including Rob Ballantyne on whose farm he worked for nine months. “When he was brought to my home, I knew this was somebody who was ambitious,” Rob recalls. “He learnt that what he’d thought was impossible was actually possible, like inseminating 400 cows in a day!”
Launching the FHDT dairy farm
Leonard recalls the realisation of the huge task that lay ahead of him back in early 2007, when he was first brought to the future FHDT site in Alice. “They said we were going to create a dairy farm, but it was just bush. I couldn’t believe it!”
Characteristically, Leonard rose to the challenge. With earthmoving equipment and local workers, he began clearing the bush and planted pasture. Today it covers 200ha and supports 800 cows.
By October 2007, milking had started in the modern dairy – a feat Leonard is reluctant to take any credit for. “I’m no superhero and I don’t like publicity. Everything I’ve been able to do has been because of the support of others,” he says.
But, as Rob insists, the FHDT works because of Leonard.
“This dairy works despite farmers like me, and because of Leonard,” says Rob, politely refusing to be included in a photograph. “Here nobody can say they don’t know what’s expected of them,” says Leonard. “It’s important to create a culture of accountability and responsibility – then it works. The students have the theory, the ability to think, so they pick up things fast and become involved in management.” They also learn about unacceptable behaviour. Course notes detail examples of bad management including leaking pipes and damaged fences, and even feature a photo of a worker sitting during milking.
At the FHDT farm there’s no room for loafing, an approach lauded by the nearby University of Fort Hare (UFH). “It’s a great opportunity for students to work in a commercial dairy where they can really learn the business,” says Prof Jan Raats from the Department of Livestock and Pasture Science. “It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to the UFH.”
Middledrift Dairy and expansion plans
Prof Raats explains the FHDT is only the start of Amadlelo’s planned dairy initiatives in the Eastern Cape. In the neighbouring town of Middledrift, a new Amadlelo dairy farm was launched in November 2008 in partnership with the local community.
With about 170ha of pasture and 550 cows, it’s managed by two former TUT students, Freddie Machele and Jeanette Rekhotso, who are also FHDT 2008 interns.
They’re supervised by Mark Keevy, a local farmer from Hogsback. “My job is to get these guys to the point of running the dairy independently. One of them will remain here and the other will go to the next dairy,” he explains.
More Amadlelo dairies are being planned in the Keiskammahoek and Whittlesea areas in the former Ciskei and Ncora in the former Transkei. But Rob is quick to explain the major challenges involved. “We can’t tackle these projects before we have more guys like Leonard – that’s the bottom line. Dairy farming is highly skilled and that’s why so many projects fail. Unless you have the correct ‘driver’, you’re wasting your time.”
Leonard agrees and believes that with the correct combination of passion, work and dedication, expansion is simply a matter of time. “All these new dairies are going to need good black managers that we will have to train them,” he says. “But it’s important we find those who really want to be involved in this industry.”
Contact Leonard Mavhungu on 082 795 7455. |fw