Commercial sugarcane farmer Tim Murray has a family tree rich with mathematicians, engineers and a Scottish provost, to boot, and since the 2019 South African Sugar Technologists’ Conference, he can add to the list his achievement as an award-winning farmer who has served the industry with distinction.

Murray, who was also recognised for a decade of leadership at this year’s International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists’ conference in Argentina, is, however, at his happiest on the family farm near New Hanover which he, his wife Moira, and their three children, have called home since the early 1990s.

“My great-grandfather George was the provost of St Andrews who procured the links that now form the legendary golf course,” he said. “He died, we understand, after a fatal fall from his penny-farthing! My grandfather, John, was an engineer with the British expeditionary forces stationed in India. On the way back to the UK after his tour of duty was completed, the ship stopped in Durban where the young officer decided to get off and start a new life for himself. He was one of the first to grow sugarcane in the Amatikulu area on a farm called Kildonan.”

Murray’s father, Hugh, also an engineer, went seeking his fortune on the copper mines in Zambia before returning to South Africa where he bought land at Doornkop near KwaDakuza, or Stanger, as it was known then.

“In 1964 my father sold up at Stanger and bought a farm called Sweetlands, close to the Noodsberg mill in the Midlands. I started my career in the 1970s as a research engineer at the South African Sugar Research Institute (SASRI). After nearly 10 years, I also went farming and set up a consulting engineering partnership before buying Fat Acre in New Hanover in the Midlands,” he said.

The farm measures 240ha in extant, with 216ha under sugarcane and the balance under pine timber.

Settling into an armchair under the thatched roof of the farmstead he built, Murray expresses concern at the state in which South Africa’s sugar industry now finds itself.

“I absolutely love this industry and the incredible bunch of people who work in it, whether they are millers, growers or are on the administration side of things.”

And while Murray wrote on the decline in both South Africa’s cane quality and milling performance in recent years in a peer review paper he delivered at the ISSCT conference earlier this year, he agreed this was just one aspect of a plethora of woes facing the industry.

For example, a decision by millers to cut back their funding to the agricultural sector’s research and development was not only short-sighted but would affect the integrity of the industry in the long term, he said.

“Right now, there is a real disconnect between our millers and the growers, and when you consider the pressure we are all feeling, we have to work closer together for the good of the industry and its survival. We need broad-based accountability and integrity that has the interests of all stakeholders, rather than just shareholders, at heart,” he added.


Tim and Moira Murray

Neither the production of fuel-grade ethanol nor that of electricity as the foundation of a diversification strategy was economically viable or the silver bullet the industry was so desperately seeking, Murray said.

“What we need is better use of the fibre, including trash, from the farms. Our domestic sugar price is good, the tariff awarded by government is now adequate. But, it’s our share of the local market and the export price for our surplus production that is the problem, and then of course, the imports from countries such as Eswatini. Sugar should be treated as a sensitive product by the South African government in the Africa Wide Free Trade Agreement and we should be looking at creating a quid pro quo agreement between ourselves and the rest of the countries in the SADC region. For example, what about signing research contracts with our neighbours in a range of commodities to add value to our research capacity? Bio-refining is a very good option for us as well: so many plastic products we use in our daily lives could be made from sugar or sugarcane fibre. The skills in South Africa’s sugar industry are world class. I believe they could be applied effectively in our neighbouring countries and across a diverse range of commodities.”