Fighting to alleviate the plight of small-scale farmers within the sugarcane industry is close to Freddie Willis’s heart. As a newly elected board member of the SA Canegrowers Association, he believes that by unifying the industry and fighting for better prices, a win-win solution will be created for all sugar farmers.

When Freddie Willis left a career of criminal investigation in the South African Police Services, he envisioned his retirement as a peaceful endeavour. But when presented with an opportunity to farm, he decided to put his retirement on ice.

Freddie Willis

“My father farmed sugarcane close to the Driekoppies Dam in Nkomazi and as a young boy I would help him in the field. So farming has always been in my blood. The sugar industry also provided me with my first job as I worked in the RCL, previously TSB, extraction plant boiling sugar,” Willis explained.

But it would be decades before he would return to the family farm, as a more adventurous career beckoned: he joined the police force in 1970, spending 26 years in the criminal investigations department. During that time he also fought in what was then South-West Africa and Rhodesia, as there was a shortage of soldiers in South Africa.

His retirement was therefore well deserved, but instead, he recognised the value in farming sugar and acquired a 7ha piece of land. “I was lucky, because when I came back home to Nkomazi from Middleburg after retiring, we were given a crash course on sugarcane farming by government. There were also many more subsequent workshops offered by the SA Canegrowers Association so I was able to learn how to farm, looking at the financial side of things and business principles.

“I really enjoy farming. I loved working in the police force but it was dangerous, so farming is far more enjoyable. Sugar farming has good prospects despite the slump in the industry. If you follow your crop programme correctly you will get a good yield and everything can be sent to the mill. Nothing has to be marketed yourself,” he said.

He added that the biggest challenges, and those on which SA Canegrowers was focusing, are the low price and unifying the growers. “The price has sunk very low, mostly due to cheaper imports. There needs to be better control of imports to improve the prices. Government needs to come on board with the industry and provide better regulation that will see our farmers succeed.”

While sugar farming was relatively easy, there were many small-scale growers who were struggling to survive because of limited capacity to expand their farms. “The income obtained from a small farm is often too little on which to survive. For these farmers the only option is to expand but there is no land available. With the low prices being paid, the need for bigger farms is all the more pressing. People are just getting by.

“As a board member I would like to concentrate efforts on small-scale farmers who are struggling. They need business plans, grants and some kind of support. The price needs to improve for the cane, overall, which will also improve the situation for these small growers.”

On his retirement plans, Willis laughed, saying there could be a chance for rest “some time soon”. “My children are interested in taking over from me, and hopefully, then I will finally be able to retire.”