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From the land — Farming a big black hole?

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.

Magalela From the Land – Farm animals are not cute, they are for business

Magalela From the Land – Farm animals are not cute, they are for business.

Magalela From the Land – Farm animals are not cute, they are for business

One reason I have remained perpetually emerging is because every two years I abandon what I had started and move on to something new. Therefore, failing in the first rule of succeeding in anything to have focus and staying power.

A couple of months after I moved into my first plot, Mr Mvelase senior, whom I inherited from the previous owners confronted me in a typical seasoned worker to a cocky newly appointed manager who is still wet behind the ears. “So now you own the land, how are you going to use it”, he asked. I was baffled and he quickly suggested breeding indigenous goats as our vegetation was thorn veld.

Where to find them was an issue. That winter Mvelase and I spend weekends searching in the deepest of amahlanze. Many times we returned empty handed as I learned that goats are a sacred animal and not a business for those who possessed them. I went to a commercial farmer and begged to buy boar goat ewes in lamb. They had seen better breeding days but they were goats and soon to double in number. At the same time one of the families that had sent us packing when we requested a few goats from their thriving flock had an urgent need and was willing to sell one of its impressive rams. Thus I started my goat farming enterprise. The Mvelases continued through autumn and summer of 1997 searching for goats. Eventually we build our hooch pooch flock to 50 and were ready to sell. Our marketing strategy was not to impress financiers. Those that had sold us goats or refused to sell us goats sent buyers our way.
When all seemed to be well my cynical friend Roy visited and I proudly introduced him to my new kid, Vicky. “Oh no this is business. Do not give your goats names because you will be saying they are too cute to be slaughter and eaten. These are not pets, they are not cute,” he scorned. (I still kept Vicky but did not name any new ones.)
Then I had my coffee milk cow, bought from Roy. I had offered him R1000 for the aged cow and he has asked if I was buying the whole Jersey cow in calf or one teat. I coughed up R4000 and in a month I was getting 40m litres of milk everyday. My big plan was to sell amasi on a bike in the nearby villages but it never happened. I also had my dozens of eggs that I got from 12 layer hens I bought because they were available and I could afford them. That year I had litres of milk on the floor in my kitchen and dozens of eggs on the counters. I had no idea what to do with this much milk and eggs so I had a buy goat get milk and eggs promotion for my goat customers.
My next problem was being soft hearted. When customers became teary as they begged for females and lambs, which were ordered for their ancestral feasts. They had fantastic blackmail stories about how speculations goats, sold by competitor’s scared ancestral spirits with their thin cries and runny tummies… I did what no self respecting farmer does: Selling off the breeding stock and my prized flock of 100 dwindled to nothing. That is how my first set of ventures fell flat. I did not stay down though I got up and tried again. Next you will hear about Magalela the cattle farmer and sheep farmer.
So to the readers of this column, I may not have highflying technical advice to offer. But if your first try falters I say Vuka uzithathe.

From the Land – “Every living thing deserves a sex life”

The turn of the century saw me at the pinnacle of my days as an emerging farmer, with about five badly managed activities going on.

If you are a regular reader of this column you will recall the story about my coffee milk cow, bought from Roy. This old cow gave 40 litres a day. My big plan was to sell amasi on a bike in the nearby villages and townships, but this never happened. This plan was born out of my childhood memories of people selling creamy amasi out of silver cans around our Good Hope village in Roosboom.

So I had the milk and I also had dozens of eggs that I got from 12 layer hens. I had bought these at the time that the government was encouraging co-operatives to keep a few point of lay hens. The hens were available and “in fashion’’ but no one had thought of advising us to have a marketing and sales plan. I had no plan to market these and was shocked when the eggs piled up very quickly.

By the end of the week I had 72 eggs and they seemed to increase every two hours. In those three years I had litres of milk on my kitchen floor and dozens of eggs on the counters. I had no idea what to do with this much milk and eggs so I had a buy-a-goat-and-get-milk-and-eggs-free promotion – a bonsella for my goat customers.

I shared this frustration with a friend, Shaun, who had also started egg production in Magalies. She sympathised but was quick to explain that she did not have my problem. She was supplying a couple of small coffee shops on this mature tourism route with eggs every week.

She told me about a cock she had brought into her flock. When I frowned because these chickens are supposed to just eat and lay eggs she shrugged and said, “I believe that every living thing deserves a sex life.’’

I supposed that is why when I had only 10 cattle, six of which were cows that included my coffee milk Jersey, I added a bull rather than opt for artificial insemination. My few cows proved to be very happy and produced at a steady pace and on schedule.

The day I took five of them to our local stock sale was a memorable one. It was a thrill, really like attending a beauty contest, and I wondered why they did not have similar outlets for amasi and eggs.

I enjoyed keeping cattle and found it to be the most pleasant off all my farming endeavours. You do very little and they are content to eat God’s grass and Mvelase gave them a dip now and then. With my head in the clouds I imagined myself making the trip to the stock sale market regularly. However, this waiting for the bull to get busy with the cows and then waiting for another two years before going to market seemed too slow for Phangisile – remember my name means you have been in a hurry.

That was when I made a bee line for the dairy milk calves – only I had not done my research on the costs and technicalities of raising them. Again, if only my extension office had taken enough time to give me proper guidance, I think I would be writing this column as a farmer that has emerged rather than as an emerging farmer. Every second Wednesday of the month I would be smiling, leaving Ennersdale sales yard, to the bank after selling off my beauties. I still dream…

Is Grass Your Staple Food? Magalela From the land

Is Grass Your Staple Food? Magalela From the land.

Is Grass Your Staple Food? Magalela From the land

“Until when will the African woman continue to toil?” a Zambian journalist once pondered sorrowfully while we drove through Malawi, where community farms and family and gardens lined the roads tended by old and tired women.

I sympathised until I remembered a conversation I once had with my friend who was a senior politician in Swaziland. She told a story of a high level government delegation exchange programme between Taiwan and her country.

“Phangisile, we were there in our finery and observing all protocol to receive the visitors and eager to show off the beauty of Kangwane and the progress we were making in industry,’’ she recounted.

As they left the newly renovated airport, my friend noticed that the Taiwanese seemed puzzled. This soon turned into animated exchanges which were out of character with the decorum of these government interactions.

Eventually the interpreter sidled to my friend and asked: “Our delegation would like to know if this grass is the staple food of the Swazis and want to congratulate you on the successful cultivation as there are fields upon fields of it since we left the airport.’’

To tell the truth, for a time I doubted if my friend, who is known for a wicked sense of humour, was telling the truth. I suspected she had embellished the story somewhat. These doubts evaporated when I visited Fujian, a hilly county in the south of China that has close cultural ties to Taiwan. Every piece of flat land, even if it was a slope, had a thriving garden or field.

On this journey we went through 20 tunnels in two hours. But even as we emerged from each tunnel every flat piece of land was cultivated. Some hills had tea gardens and to my dismay in many places the greenery was broken by jutting tombstones. (Do not ask!!).

As we went through the villages, towns and cities, I realised that no piece of flat, arable land lay fallow or was covered with grass, “the staple food of the Swazis’’. Even pavements and the islands dividing the roads were gardens.

Back to my Zambian sister, I feel that African women and men have not even started toiling to feed their households.

When I visited Liberia, where any pip thrown on the ground grows and bears delicious fruits, they still moaned about hunger and malnutrition.

There are exceptions: for instance, the farmers of Cote D’Ivoire who run their cocoa and coffee plantation so well they inspire struggling emerging farmers like me.

I was so thrilled by what I saw in Cote D’Ivoire that when I returned home I drove to the prestigious Tugela Plains project, expecting to find a thriving agriculture industry to rival Cote d’Ivoire’s. I was disappointed to see it was only grass on the banks of the Tugela River boken state-of-the-art irrigation equipment. But I chuckled as I remembered the story of grass being a staple food.

The one-home-one-garden declaration in South Africa should have been translated into a way of life a long time ago. It should be turned into reality… access to water, education about water recycling for communities, in drought prone areas and seedlings’ supply that know no political affiliation.

I also have visions of all those fields unattended during the days of child support grant pay days. Maybe the Department of Social Development should visit those benefiting from all types of social grants and they should be “encouraged’’ to use some of that income to set up gardens.

Hawu bakwethu, phezu komkhono.

Magalela: From the Land – After Assam tea never tasted the same

Magalela: From the Land – After Assam tea never tasted the same.