Newly appointed chairman of SA Canegrowers Graeme Stainbank says priorities during his two-year tenure are to improve grower unity and relationships between cane growers and millers.

The KwaZulu-Natal sugarcane farmer, who has managed exponential growth on a farm near Eston, said his passion for the land and his bid to serve the industry he loved, were fundamental values behind both his time at SA Canegrowers and the way he ran his farms.

Stainbank, who joined the SA Canegrowers board in 2003, took over as Chairman from Tim Murray, at the 90th annual general meeting earlier this year.

“I believe we have great depth in our board, all our members have different strengths they can offer. I want to build a culture of people coming in and playing their part and then moving aside to make way for new leadership. I love this industry. It is my passion. It is my life. I see my role in the association as a duty to an industry that has given me so much. My aim is to leave the organisation and my farms in better standing than how I found them,” Stainbank said.


With the South African sugar industry in recovery following one of the worst droughts in living memory and farmers having to adapt to shrinking profit margins exacerbated by the necessary transformation of land ownership and the global move away from sugar consumption, Stainbank called on growers and millers to reassess their relationship if the industry was to remain sustainable.

“Times are tough, but whether you like it or not millers and growers are joined at the hip. What we need is to align our incentives so that we are both striving for the same goal. For growers and millers to be opposing forces, as they tend to be now, is not good for efficiencies in the industry,” he said.

Stainbank said he was also eager to encourage growers to adopt new technologies and to regularly plant new varieties.

“The South African Sugar Research Institute (SASRI) is world class, but it is under- utilised by farmers. I follow SASRI recommendations to the letter. I plant new varieties all the time and I am always keen to try something new. It has worked for me”

Stainbank farms the 1 232ha Stainbank Bros Farms at Eston in the southern KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The dry land operation he said, in a normal season,  delivered on average 90 tons a hectare to the Eston mills from fields he described as having the poorest, low potential soils that were both weak and sandy.

“My great-grandfather, Dering Stainbank, arrived in South Africa from England in 1857. He was just 16 years old. He started farming with his two older brothers and then on his own at Coedmore near Durban (now the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve). In 1871 he bought his first farm Dering at Eston. At first it was what was known as a labour farm. In those days local people were expected to pay hut tax. So my grandfather set up the farm here where they could stay without paying the tax.”


The production of sugarcane at Eston started in the 1950s with the crop delivered to the Illovo Mill on a narrow gauge railway line. “The original family farm has been divided a number of times through the generations. My father split with his brothers and started on his own with approximately 160ha..”

Following the obligatory two-year army conscription, an Agricultural Management Degree from the former University of Natal and a two-year stint employed at SASRI, Stainbank returned to the farm in December 1991 to start what today stands as an exemplary example of effective growth management in the agricultural sector.

“As a sugarcane farmer you have to have faith in yourself, be a jack of all trades rather than a specialist and know your soils and your crop inside out. I have had to learn everything from the ground up, to adapt to the conditions here. Everything is strip cropped to help protect against erosion and all plough-outs are green manured. After five or six ratoons we plough the sugarcane out in April. We plant oats in winter, sun hemp in summer and forage sorghum, which we plough in during October. We have a herd of cattle that grazes on the oats during the winter months.”

And while the eldana was not as aggressive as it is in the coastal region, Stainbank said if it was found, the pest was treated using Coragen and the cane was selectively sprayed. “I don’t believe in blanket spraying. We have a nature reserve on our boundary and some of the wildlife comes into our fields. So we keep the use of pesticides to a minimum.”


But it is the recent aggressive expansion of the landholding as Stainbank has bought up neighbouring farms in a bid to ramp up economy of scale, which is truly significant for the farmer who said his new position as chairman now demanded he was away more days of the week than he was at home.

The father-of- three, who has also completed a Masters of Business Administration (MB, said: “You know I couldn’t have done this without my wife Bev and my lifelong friend, Busani Mbeje. Bev does all the accounting and human resources competencies, while Busani runs the day-to-day farming operation. The two of them will tell you that I fly in every now and again, cause a whole lot of trouble and then fly out. I think they would rather I stayed away,” he laughed.

And with his son in Grade 11 at the prestigious Michaelhouse in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Stainbank said he was ready to pass on his love and passion for the land and the industry to the next generation. “Nicholas is in Grade 11 and he just loves farming. All he wants to do is come back to the farm. I will insist though that he studies first and then works for someone else before coming back here,” Stainbank said.


And what about the future and what it holds for the next generation of farmers? “There is no doubt in my mind that the concerns linked to the consumption of sugar and health will change and there will be consensus again that sugar is in fact an essential energy food in our diet. But until then, we must adapt and diversify – we have to get to a point where co-generation of energy from sugar mills becomes viable and of course the production of bio-fuels as a by-product of the milling process must be fast tracked to ensure the survival of the industry.”


Advertise in the Shukela Plus Tech Edition

Advertise in the Shukela Plus Tech Edition

The next edition of Shukela Plus - aptly titled Shukela Tech - which is due for publication early in July, will reflect the growing trend in the sugar industry towards production diversification and technology innovation. Renowned sugar industry scientist, Dr Kathy...

read more
Tongaat Hulett banks on the Masterplan

Tongaat Hulett banks on the Masterplan

As Shukela Plus delves into the innovation and diversification options available to South Africa’s sugar industry, Tongaat Hulett’s Managing Director: Sugar Operations, Simon Harvey responds to questions on the development of the Sugar Industry Masterplan, how it will...

read more
Communities and farmers benefit from macadamia prosperity

Communities and farmers benefit from macadamia prosperity

Profit from South Africa’s booming macadamia industry offers massive benefits for rural areas and communities as well as a more than viable alternative for the country’s embattled sugar growers. As one of the world’s most lucrative crops, macadamias are not only an...

read more