Herbs – a beginner’s success story

While many emerging farmers usually battle to survive, being thrown in the deep end helped organic farmer Jimmy Ka-Botha to succeed. Today he supplies Woolworths and Pick n Pay. Peter Mashala visted him.

Herbs –  a beginner’s success story
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 When Jimmy Ka-Botha walked through the gates of his newly purchased 22ha farm in Tarlton, north-west of Johannesburg seven years ago, he hardly knew where to begin. His knowledge of farming was almost non-existent and the infrastructure needed a huge amount of repair. Yet his willingness to learn and get down to sheer hard work has paid off handsomely – and is an excellent example to emerging farmers everywhere.

Before this enterprise, Jimmy ran his own telecommunications company. The business struggled, however, and the idea of farming – a long-held dream of his – began to hold more and more appeal. Then, he met an American property developer, Carl Bourgois, who was touring South Africa and looking to invest in land in this country. The two entered into a partnership and Carl funded the purchase of the farm in Tarlton.

Infrastructure on the farm was extremely poor, consisting of little more than a house and seven burnt-down hydroponic tunnels. So Jimmy immediately got to work repairing the tunnels, fixing fences and putting in boreholes. “My telecoms business was doing poorly. All I had was this farm. I had to make it work to survive,” he explains.

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Learning the basics – with basil
After he had cleaned up and fixed the tunnels, Jimmy still had no clue what to plant. So he went on a fact-finding mission on farms in the area. “Everyone was helpful and generous,” he recalls. Most people advised him to plant herbs, and suggested that basil was the best to start with.

Jimmy launched his enterprise with basil, and still grows the crop.

“They even bought seedlings for me and helped me plant them,” Jimmy says. “Seedlings at that time were R75 for 1 000. They bought me 21 000 seedlings, as each tunnel had capacity for 3 000 seedlings.” After harvesting his first crop, Jimmy visited greengrocers in Johannesburg with his produce. Thanks to its high quality, he soon found customers such as Impala Fruit and Veg in Northcliff, who has remained a loyal customer to this day.

Lack of experience
Jimmy confesses that due to inexperience, he spent too much money on irrigation when he started out. “I should have begun by using the overhead irrigation system, which was already installed and just needed repairs – it would have worked adequately with basil,” he says. “But I was advised to install the more expensive dripper pipes right away, so I did. The dripper system is better – it uses water more efficiently and prevents water splashing onto leaves – but I should have converted to it only later when I could afford to.”

Jimmy admits that initially he wasted money on suppliers instead of doing things himself. He has learned from this mistake and believes that farmers should always start small, try to tackle tasks themselves and save as much money as possible.
“Had it not been for the financial backing from Carl at the start, I would never have made it,” he recalls. More recently, he was also fortunate to receive a grant from the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to build a pack house – a requirement for his GlobalGAP application to be an organic grower.

Advantages of hydroponics
Today, Jimmy’s operation consists of 21 tunnels, each 30m x 10m in size, three shade nets covering 1ha each, and a quarter acre (1 000m2) of open lands. He plants basil, rocket and coriander in the tunnels, baby spinach, radicchio and lettuce under the shade netting, and mint, rosemary and parsley on the open lands. According to Jimmy, coriander, basil and rocket are particularly sensitive to rot caused by excessive rain, and it would be difficult to grow these in the open.

He plants the herbs all year round, with the exception of the basil. “It’s sensitive to cold, so I don’t grow it in winter,” he explains. The tunnels have a built-in coal-fired heating system, but this would cost nearly R40 000 a month to operate, which is far too expensive.

Organic farming
Jimmy is in the process of applying for GlobalGAP certification as an organic grower. Although his farm is not yet ‘official’, he regards his operation as 100% organic. He buys his seedlings from Multiplant seedling nursery, an organically certified nursery on Hartbeesfontein farm near Brits, and uses organically certified pesticides from suppliers such as Jeff’s Fertiliser and Pesticides, and Vossen Products. As a result, he is able to spray and harvest on the same day, if need be.

Jimmy uses fertiliser, but only in small quantities, preferring green manure instead. At the end of harvesting, instead of removing the plants, he works them into the soil with a rotavator. This helps to provide moisture and nutrients, as well as control weeds naturally.

In addition to farming, Jimmy and his wife Manthwese are involved in community work. He is building a library and assisting needy families with their school fees.

Jimmy uses 5:1:5 organic fertiliser to supplement the green manure, and applies chicken manure before applying the fertiliser. He uses 1m3 of chicken manure and one 50kg bag of 5:1:5 organic fertiliser per tunnel, and applies the fertiliser at least twice a year. He also stresses the need to apply pesticides and fungicides regularly.

“When you notice that the leaves have been attacked by fungi, you can’t just break off the outside leaves, as you can with, say, cabbage. With herbs, the leaves are your profits,” he explains. Jimmy has a passion for ‘green’ farming, which is why he has chosen to grow herbs. “They don’t deplete the soil as quickly as other vegetables,” he says. When resting the soil, Jimmy plants oilseed radish, also known as bladrammenas (Raphanus sativus subsp. oleiferus) as a cover crop. Its deep roots help to loosen the soil and draw nutrients to the upper stratum. This crop is also rotavated into the soil as green manure.

While awaiting his GlobalGAP certification, Jimmy supplies his produce through the certified Jomajoco pack house, which enables him to sell organic herbs to Woolworths and Pick n Pay. “Because I work through the pack house, the owner, Johan van den Bos, often visits my farm to check compliance,” he says. According to Jimmy, the GlobalGAP certification emphasises traceability. 

“I have to buy from a certified supplier and keep records – what I apply on my plants, when and how often.” “This is to ensure that the product can be traced in case of a problem, such as someone getting sick from the food. Once I’m certified, I’ll be able to supply anywhere in the world.”

Contact Jimmy Ka-Botha on 072 426 1383.