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From the land — Farming a big black hole?

October 14, 2012

My double life as an international executive by day and farmer by night intrigues many. Those in my professional circles usually express disbelief, quickly followed by curiosity.

The best reaction I had was from Andy, my executive coach, who had just settled in Johannesburg from London. When I mentioned farming as part of my life he said: “I have heard about the big black hole in which many South Africans periodically throw their money.”

I cocked my head expectantly.

“It is called farming,” he said as he looked down at my written objectives for the year, top of which was make the farm work, get wealthy.

That was in 2003 after I had moved into KwaMsizi Farm and I could not bear to see the green kikuyu pastures lying unused.

Without further ado I did my desktop research and figured out sheep farming was what I had to get into. I had learned my lesson from the milk and eggs fiasco when I could not sell them, so this time I consulted my seasoned farming neighbours and lined up some customers. I even dragged myself to the local extension office, determined not to burn my fingers and money again.

There is an abattoir in town and after a quick visit there, I left thinking they were on board, they would accept sheep from me. Confident that I had diverse customers – the abattoir and informal sales during Easter and Christmas holidays – I decided that my flock had to be substantial.

I haggled with brokers and dispatched a team to check out the merchandise before settling on a flock of 160 ewes from Middleburg. The deal nearly fell through because transport and insurance costs were higher than the costs of the flock.

When the flock arrived we let them loose in the farmhouse yard and within a few hours my lawn was properly trimmed. That is when the red lights should have started flashing for me.

But they grazed on Kikuyu and the scale kept creeping closer to the abattoir’s standards. We learned that sheep are hard work and have to be the “beauties’’ of the livestock – what with the constant grooming – shearing, pedicures – and they had to be on a rigorous de-worming programme.

I had customers in Johannesburg buying for their Christmas lunches while I waited for my big break with the abattoir. When many had reached the desired weight, my brother Zipho, who was managing this venture, loaded 15 and headed for the abattoir, eager to make the first big sale.

It proved to be the most humiliating day in my farming – – no, working — experience. We were there at 7 am and by noon Zipho had to turn back home with his load without anybody at the abattoir even saying “Can we help you?”

“Sisi, it is as if I am not here,” he reported before leaving.

This happened even after we had done the pre-marketing and had discussions with the abattoir. We were so dejected that for the first time in my farming adventures I was sure that I had just experienced racism.

As winter was approaching my problems became evident. I did not have enough grazing for the now close to 200 animals and certainly had no money for winter supplementary feed. I did not have a mass market for my sheep. That winter my flock was decimated as I had to sell cheap and slaughtered many to prevent them from starving.

When I met Andy six months later to review progress against my objectives I was close to conceding that farming was really the big black hole into which I had poured my money. Then I thought, I may have stumbled into this hole but I am not buried.

I did some more research and this time broilers caught my eye. After all KwaMsizi had old pigsties that, with some little renovation, could provide solid chicken pans.

I convinced myself I would still be a good farmer despite my setbacks.

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