Despite overwhelming challenges, sugarcane grower and widow, Rita van der Bergh is determined to make a success of her 54 ha irrigation enterprise outside Malelane in Mpumalanga. Farming she says is her passion and as a result she is already making a huge success of the cane farm bequeathed to her four years ago.
When Rita van den Berg’s former husband bequeathed a 54ha sugarcane farm to her four years ago she relished the challenge of taking the property to new heights.
By overhauling the irrigation system and rapidly replanting the fields she has improved both the productivity and profitability on the farm.
Van den Berg’s first love was always farming and after school she followed her passion by completing a diploma in agriculture before farming sugarcane near Barberton in Mpumalanga for 12 years, but after a series of devastating farm attacks she chose to take up a more secure job as an agricultural consultant in the area.
Four years ago she was gifted a second chance when her former husband bequeathed her his farm in Malelane.
“It was hard coming onto this farm as a woman. You have to work ten times harder to earn respect. From day one I have been active in the fields with my staff to show them that I can do the job. I have earned their trust though and we now have a good relationship,” van den Berg said.
Getting the basics right
Van den Berg’s farm achieves a yield of 3800 tons-a-ha on average and relative value (RV) of 15.77.
“It’s not bad, but I can do better. Some of the varieties are old and the spacing in the fields is not optimal so the yield per hectare is low. I’m replanting about 20% of my fields each year at this stage. For the amount of work we do and the input costs, it is the same whether we get 50 tons-a-ha or 100 tons-a-ha, so improving yields is not negotiable,” she said.
Van den Berg has a few varieties of sugarcane on the farm and is gradually moving from older to newer cultivars.
Currently the N25 variety is being replaced by N57 and N36.
“The N25 is very disease prone and I have found that the N36 flourishes in my rocky soils. N57 is very new and I’m trying it out just to spread my risk between varieties,” van den Berg said.
She said optimal weed control was critical. “If you don’t remove the weeds they end up using all the fertiliser meant for the sugar crop. Cane is essentially a grass so it makes it even more difficult to control weed grasses that emerge in the fields.”
Van den Berg applies a mixture of Duiron, Metribuzin 480 SC, MCPA 400SL to her fields and Pendimethalin 500 EC is used. On two blocks this year Preeglone was added because of an excess of Rottboellia grass in the fields.
“I would rather spend R200-a-ha more on herbicide. It’s more cost effective. The problem with Rottboellia grass is that it looks just like sugarcane initially. You only notice it once it starts making seed. Then you have to go in and pull it out by hand,” she said.
When van den Berg arrived on the farm the staffing was not optimal for the size of the farm. She has gradually employed contractors who replant the cane, harvest and transport the product to the mill. She has four permanent staff members with whom she works side by side in the fields.
“A farmer’s footprints in the soil will distinguish his or her success from another’s failure. I firmly believe that my success can be attributed to the fact that I am in my fields every day. When new ratoons are being planted or irrigation pipes are laid, I am there with my measuring tape marking out each metre. If you are not there you miss the small things, which eventually become big things. It is not hard to farm sugarcane, but if you want to be a top farmer you must walk your fields,” said van den Berg.
When the 47-year-old took over the farm, the irrigation system needed attention. Having completed a South African Irrigation Institute course, van den Berg knew the importance of a well-designed watering system. A permanent system was then designed and installed, which not only improved her water usage, but also her yield.
“Now I can irrigate each block for an hour at a time, several times a day. Previously the pipes had to be moved to different blocks each time it needed to be irrigated. That was very labour intensive. The pipes could also only be moved twice a day so the irrigation was not optimal. Since my soil is very rocky I need to manage it like sandy soil as the water retention is low,” she said.
The irrigation pipes run underground and the 3,5 metre high sprinklers are spaced at 18 metre intervals. She has installed part circle sprinklers on the edges of her fields to make sure neighbouring blocks don’t get wet as well and to ensure she can precisely control her water usage. It also guarantees that when liquid fertiliser is used, application in each field is precise and there are no overlaps. Strainers have been put inside the pipes to prevent blockages from algae and shells that come through the water canal system. The system uses hydraulic valves so irrigation can be turned on and off using a cellphone.
Van den Berg said installing the permanent and effectively designed irrigation system was one of the best decisions she had made on the farm. “For the first time I can manage the irrigation without it managing me. The most important aspect in successfully growing sugarcane is the irrigation. It influences the yield and RV, which ultimately determines my income. Other systems are also labour intensive so I get a further saving there. The permanent system is guaranteed for 20 years, whereas the drip irrigation above the ground would need to be replaced every eight years when the cane is replanted.”
Looking to the future, van den Berg says her aim is to complete her degree in agriculture this year as she believes in empowering herself in whichever way she can. “Despite the challenges on this farm and the one I farmed in Barberton, I am so grateful to be farming again. Through every challenge there is a lesson, and bit by bit I am improving the farm and myself,” she said.
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