Michael Ramoholi is a big, gregarious man who introduces himself as ‘Big Mike’. He is visibly proud of what he has achieved on his relatively small farm in the crop-producing central Free State. And the hard work that he has put into it over the past few years is obvious, even on a bleak and windy winter’s day. Michael farms on the farm Komma in the Theunissen district. He bought the land in 2004 with a Land Bank loan that covered 60% of the price while a government grant covered the balance.
Michael grew up on a farm in the Wesselsbron district where he joined the South African Police Service (SAPS). During his time in the force, he speculated with cattle, and finally resigned from the SAPS in 1989 to farm full-time. He began on land leased from the Welkom municipality. “I had to share grazing rights with other people from the township,” he recalls.
“This led to a lot of conflicts about overgrazing and theft, so I decided to buy my own land as soon as I could.” Michael also runs a funeral parlour in Hoopstad, a venture he launched to eke out his income while still speculating with livestock. “It means hard work, but sleep is for sissies. One can always sleep later, one day,” he remarks.
Michael’s operation consists of maize and sunflower cropping as well as a commercial beef herd. About 115ha of the 214ha farm is arable and the balance is grazing land. He also leases 277ha of high-potential arable land from the Welkom municipality. In total, he plants 357ha to sunflower and 20ha to maize. The beef herd currently consists of 54 cross-bred cows and a sheep flock of 62 ewes and lambs.
“I love the land,” he say. “To plant and watch the crop develop to the harvesting stage inspires and motivates me.” He adds that knowledge is key to any business, which is why he was keen to join Grain SA’s training programme.
Michael’s soil consists of sandy loam about 1,5m deep. The average annual rainfall is about 750mm. He plants Pannar’s 7033 and Agricol’s 8251 sunflower cultivars at 42 000 seeds/ ha. Monsanto DKC 7845 is planted for white maize and Monsanto 8040 for yellow maize, both at a density of 22 000 seeds/ha. He fertilises the lands with Omnia 310 fertiliser before planting and applies nitrogen at 150kg/ha to the maize lands after planting.
The optimal planting time for sunflower in the Theunissen district is from mid-October to late January and for maize from mid-November to late January. However, the drought in early 2013/2014 season meant that both planting periods extended to two weeks later than normal. Michael’s fleet comprises a Fiat 100/90, a Ford 7840, a Ford TS 90 and three Slattery harvesters, and he takes good care of his implements and tractors.
“I’ve completed Grain SA’s Tractor and Implement Maintenance course as well as Introduction to Maize and Sunflower, Advanced Maize Production, Contractor and the Farm Resource and Planning courses,” he says. “My workers have also been on courses. Training can never stop and I’ll keep on learning. I’m full of praise for the Grain SA mentors; they’re available to help us day and night.”
Michael’s average sunflower yield is 2t/ ha while the maize yield is 4t/ha. The breakeven point for sunflower is 1,2t/ ha and for maize it is 2,5t/ha. He markets both through the Senwes silos in Odendaalsrus, Theunissen and Hennenman. “When I started, my yield was so low I didn’t even bother to harvest the crops. I left it for the cattle,” he admits. “Now I’m a member of Grain SA’s 500-ton club for developing grain producers who harvest more than 500t of maize annually.”
The knowledge he gained contributed to his success.“The Grain SA study group meetings, farmers’ days and farm support visits have helped me reduce my mistakes. But a successful farmer must be a hands-on manager on his own farm.”
Michael has big plans. “In five years, I want to be an independent, successful, fully-fledged commercial farmer. I want my family and fellow farmers to be proud of the example I’ve set,” he says.
Michael’s greatest limitation is the size of his farm. Agriculture is increasingly based on economies of scale, so he needs to farm at least 1 000ha to implement rotational crop production that will allow him to leave some cropland fallow for a full season. “Developing farmers find it very hard to access land,” he says. “I’ve tried – without success – to lease more land from the Welkom municipality, which is unfortunate as I’d have used it responsibly to produce food.”
He emphasises that if he were South Africa’s minister of agriculture, he would subsidise all farmers. “We must have a stable and economically viable sector. The government doesn’t take good care of agriculture, the most important sector in South Africa.”
His own Grain SA mentor, Bertie Human, praises Michael for his hard work. “I’m privileged to work as his mentor,” he says. “He’s eager to learn and always open for suggestions. He wants to do things the right way. I’m also impressed with his work ethic and the fact that he’s self-motivated to grow his business.” Bertie adds that mentors should help more developing farmers become successful commercially. “It would contribute tremendously to food security, rural development and the regeneration of the Free State platteland.”
Like Bertie, Michael is also committed more broadly to his profession and community. He is a member of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation and African Farmers’ Association of SA, and is involved with a school in Hoopstad, sponsoring awards for academic excellence.
Michael on the problems facing developing farmers
“Small farms, lack of production capital, outdated, derelict equipment and lack of support and commitment from the authorities. The DRDLR made a promising start with the recapitalisation project, but it has either run out of steam or the money got lost.”
Phone Michael Ramoholi on 084 457 4427.