Keeping the faith, holding his nerve and sticking to the fundamentals have not only seen Zululand sugarcane farmer Moses Gumede survive the drought but his current harvest is expected to break all records at the mill.

“My crop is tip top. I forecast delivering a record 15 700 tons to the mill this season,” Gumede said.

The former extension officer farms 401ha outside the Zululand town of Gingindlovu and looking at the dense green fields today it is hard to believe that just two years ago his yield was down to 9 000 tons, with large swathes of cane either dying or dead.

“Previously in a good year I used to deliver 14 700 tons and when the rains arrived in February this year I was fairly confident I would get back to that tonnage. But my crop has exceeded all my expectations. I think God must be on my side,” he chuckled.

Over a cup of tea in his hill top office, Gumede said he had survived the crisis because he had stuck to the basics regardless of external factors.

“You know I am very worried about the weather forecast. We are hearing now that the drought might not be over, that we are going to get very little rain when we need it most towards the end of the year. But, I will just carry on with what I have done all along. I am always on my farm. I am hands on, keeping a watchful eye all the time and when I see something is not right I act straight way.

“When my cane started to die I did a lot of gapping and replanting regardless of whether there was rain forecasted or not. I kept my fields clean, I applied fertilisers and herbicides as I had always done. It is so important to persevere no matter what.”

SEED CANE SHORTAGE CHALLENGE

He said the biggest challenge during that time, however, was the availability of seed cane. “That was a real problem. I just couldn’t get enough. And as soon as the rains did arrive I really started pushing my planting programme because the new ratoons tend to survive the dry seasons much better than the older ratoons. I have had to replant more than the annual 10% of my fields because some of the older ratoons have started losing root development as a direct result of the drought.”

For Gumede and his wife, who is also an extension officer, farming was all they ever wanted to do and their story is in itself inspirational.

In 2003 while still employed at Tongaat Hulett, Gumede heard that the government-owned Natal Trust Farms outside Gingingdlovu were up for sale.

TAKING RISKS

However, when he went for the interview to buy one of the properties, he was told the farms were now subject to a land claim and no longer for sale. “They said I could lease one farm for five years. It was a risk because after the five years were up I could lose it and then I would have to start all over again,” he said.

Regardless of the obvious risks, however, Gumede decided to take the chance. “I also had to resign my job with all its benefits, but you know there is nothing else I want to do for the rest of my life other than farm.”

The farms, which were claimed by the neighbouring Nzuza community, were leased to 10 previously disadvantaged farmers who were identified by officials in 2003.

Gumede is the only one of the farmers who remains and his success resulted in the Nzuza community leader, Inkosi Inyezame Nzuza allowing him to stay on. Farming on the remaining properties had not only collapsed, but the nine farmers were asked to leave as a result by the Chief.

FARMERS WORK TOGETHER

At that time Gumede’s lease was for 160ha, today he is planting 401ha having extended his operation to some of the failed properties. “There are four new farmers now on the remaining land and we are all working together to make a success of the farms,” Gumede said.

At the time because there were no title deeds for the property, commercial banks would not assist the aspiring farmer with finance. “I had R1 500 in my pocket. That’s all. I even borrowed money from a stokvel, but as you can imagine the interest was very high,” he said.

Perhaps the real success of Gumede’s farming operation was the fact he developed a structure that would see the neighbouring communities benefitting from his expertise and ambition. Of the original 160ha property, 137ha were inside the traditional authority landholding.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT WAS KEY

“I knew from the beginning if I was to succeed I had to include all the people around me. I held meetings with groups of local people suggesting to them that I plant up the land around their homes and I would then rent that land from them. This has resulted in a very good relationship between us,” he said.

In 2008, Gumede was harvesting 5 200 tons in total from the community areas and 8 400 tons from his 160has in a normal season.

Now with a little more grey in his hair and laugh lines etched around his eyes, Gumede is considering whether or not to take the leap and buy his very own farm. “My youngest son, Sandile (13) is at the agriculture college in Vryheid. He wants to come back and farm with me. It would make me so happy to leave that legacy behind for my son. I am thinking about it, it is in my head.”

And what advice would he have for his son? “I always say to him; you must acquire knowledge and expertise and then try and put it into practice. There are so many excellent farmers out there who are so keen to help with advice and support, all he needs to do is listen and then take their advice and he will succeed.”

RELATED ARTICLES:

Turning sugar cane into high quality rum

A stagnating mine and a bit of land planted to sugar cane has opened the way for Malelane engineer, Robert Greaves to use his skills and resources to produce South Africa’s first rum made from sugar cane juice. The rum, called Mhoba Rum, is made in the agricole...

read more

Researcher looks to grow sugar yields for smallholders

Increasing the yields of sugarcane production on smallscale farms in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga to promote the crop as a primary source of income in rural areas is now the focus of South African Farmers’ Development Association researcher, Tshepo Pilusa. Tshepo...

read more