Undefeated Solly: no chip on his shoulder

While farming in the 1980s, Solly Ratsomane managed to acquire land from an apartheid government. Under the new government he had to face floods with minimal compensation and a land claim. But nothing could stop Solly. Through all of this, both during apartheid and in the new dispensation, white farmers were more than willing to help. He’s become one of Limpopo’s top commercial farmers. Cornelia du Plooy writes.
Issue date 26 October 2007

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Solly Ratsomane’s successful potato farming business is driven by humility and his unique passion for potatoes. “My story started in Dendron in 1985 when I leased a piece of land from government, which was difficult, and planted my first tomato crop,” he recalls. “A year later I expanded my tomatoes, but also decided to plant potatoes during winter. “Back then Wouter van Amstel of Blouberg Potatoes taught me all there is to know about potato farming. I didn’t have a foolproof start, but at least our first harvest brought us R7 000. “In 1989 I decided to move to Bochum. Once again it was difficult to lease the land from government. Wouter was quite high up in the credit bureau so I then approached him for a letter of recommendation. Thanks to him my lease was granted and we were able to plant a successful 10ha potato crop on a 446ha section of the farm Devonia.” Getting competitive During the early 1990s Solly realised he needed to enter the competitive market. “I used to sell my potatoes straight from the land, but I knew I had to start delivering washed potatoes. Again I went and knocked on doors asking for help. Potato farmer Martiens de Wet offered me a generous deal. It really wasn’t in his best interest, but he helped me anyway. For four years I would wash my potatoes with his washing machine by day and he’d wash his by night.” Solly knew he needed his own washing machine. “13 March 1998 was the first time Land Bank opened its doors to black people so I took a chance and they gave me R350 000. I bought my washing machine and new tractors. We had a big party that October to celebrate – even the MEC for agriculture came!” Election anxiety: plunging prices T he 1990s brought a lot of political tension. “Getting good prices for my other crops, especially the tomatoes, was very difficult,” Solly remembers. “People bought less food in anticipation of the 1994 election. The whole country feared the worst, but luckily the outcome was positive, and so were the market prices.” During this time Solly also started farming near Blouberg with his brother Alfred. Major flood damage The potato farmers were again hit hard by the floods of the 1999/2000 season. “The Land Bank gave us only enough to cover 10% of the damages we incurred. I had more than R200 000 worth of damage and they only gave us R24 500. I suppose that’s just part and parcel of farming,” shrugs Solly. Land claims In 2001 Solly received the news most farmers fear – his Bochum farm had come under claim. “Of course I was angry when I heard about it,” Solly says. “Even though I only lease a portion of this land, it still feels like my own and I wouldn’t want to lose it. I started looking for additional land. Another farmer, Anton Bothma, who’d helped me in the past and who knows me well, offered to sell a piece of land to me in the Vivo area. I bought Section Two of Marinus Spruit, which makes up 1 430ha, for R2,4 million.” Good times, soaring prices The 2002/2003 season saw the potato price soar. Within eight months Solly was able to repay his loan for the Vivo farm. “Now I have two farms and both have washing machines. I’ve decided that if the land claim is successful I’ll offer the government a third of my Bochum business and two tractors. “If they don’t want financial compensation I’ll have no choice but to concentrate on the business in Vivo. There’s no sense in bumping your head against a mountain. That’s why I have the Vivo farm. If the worst happens I won’t be too badly affected.” Contact Solly’s Boerdery on (015) 593 0470 or 083 305 7845, or business manager Mjuda Mokobodi on 082 502 3925. |fw