Despite the serious challenges facing the local sugar market, like declining demand, sugar tax and cheap imports, Bhekithemba “Bheki” Mhlane remains upbeat about his industry. This second-generation sugar farmer on Phelandaba Farm in KwaShayamoya near Umzinto, KwaZulu-Natal, tells Peter Mashala how fate forced him back into the family legacy.
Bheki Mhlane had a flourishing career as a mechanical engineer, specialising as a turner machinist, first at Tongaat Hulett, then at Transnet and later at Voermol. But when his father’s health started failing in 2015, Bheki had to get more involved on their family farm.
“My dad had just lost my mother and his health was starting to deteriorate. He was 70 years old and diabetic. I think my mother’s death had just made matters worse.”
Bheki’s father, Norman Ntethe Mhlane, started farming part time in the 1960s while working as an extension officer at Tongaat Hulett. Based in Pietermaritzburg, his job was to promote sugar-cane farming in the homelands of KZN. “My dad was fortunate to have had the opportunity to study for a diploma in agriculture at the University of Fort Hare back then,” says Bheki.
“He claimed to have studied with the likes of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and other prominent political figures of the time.” Tongaat Hulett, explains Bheki, saw an opportunity to access more sugar in the underutilised former homelands and recruited Norman to help bring the land back into sugar-cane production.
“Those communities were subsistent farmers, growing mealies and amadumbe and keeping a few animals. Most of the land was just lying fallow.”
Norman travelled the length and breadth of the province’s homelands, preaching the gospel of sugar cane. The relationships he built with the chiefs and indunas allowed him to secure land for himself to start his own sugar-cane operation.
“He was allocated some land in eNdwedwe on the outskirts of Tongaat and Verulam, where he started a small operation and put my grandmother in charge. This is how I was introduced to sugar-cane farming,” Bheki recalls. During school holidays young Bheki visited his grandmother to help with the farmwork, fetching water and herding livestock.
In the early 1990s, though, the political violence was intensifying and Bheki’s grandmother had to be relocated. “The area wasn’t safe for farming any longer and the farm eventually collapsed,” says Bheki. By the mid-Nineties, Norman retired and ventured into farming full-time. This time he bought his own farm in Eston in the Midlands, southeast of Pietermaritzburg. Bheki worked with his father part time while studying at the then LC Johnson Technical College in Durban, where he got his N4 in mechanical engineering, specialising in fitting and turning. After graduating, he secured an apprenticeship with Tongaat Hulett that later became a permanent post. “I wasn’t getting to the farm as much as I wanted to back then,” Bheki says.
Norman was intent on growing his farming operation, however, and when the opportunity to lease a farm in the coastal area of KwaShayamoya near Umzinto came along, he jumped at it. “This is the farm where we are now. It was a great opportunity because it’s best to farm sugar cane along the coast,” explains Bheki.
Sugar cane grows longer inland, taking 24 months from germination to harvest, whereas at the coast it takes between a year and 15 months. The KwaShayamoya farm belonged to Illovo Sugar and was one of the farms the company was advertising for lease by black farmers with an option eventually to buy it as part of the Reynolds Brothers estate. Around this time, Bheki’s mother died, and Norman sold his Eston farm and relocated to KwaShayamoya permanently.
A few years later Norman remarried. “My stepmom, Dolly Dasa, is as passionate about farming as he was,” recalls Bheki, who at the time was working mainly as the farm’s mechanic. “I fixed the tractor, implements and pumps over weekends,” he says. Then tragedy struck again in 2013, when Dolly died after a short illness. “She was younger than my dad, and we always thought she’d take over when he died. But God had other plans,” Bheki explains. The passing of his stepmother brought about major changes in Bheki’s life, as he had to move closer and step in to help Norman.
Bheki finally resigned in May 2016 after trying to run the farm remotely for a few years. His plan was to establish an engineering workshop in Umzinto while helping Norman run the farm, but then Norman passed away in September 2016 and he had to take over the farm completely.
With this came new challenges. “My first big hurdle was getting access to the accounts. The farm was a deceased estate and, with my dad being a sole proprietor, I was stuck,” Bheki recalls.
“The fact that he had a will didn’t matter and I had to make other plans while lawyers tried to sort out the mess.” Fortunately he managed to cut a deal with the lawyers that allowed him to continue farming the land. “With no funds to run the farm, I dug into my pension fund and savings to keep afloat. Not only was I not earning a salary, my pension was also being spent on the farm.”
When Bheki took over the 117ha farm in 2016, 50ha was in production and about 50% of that was old cane. Only 1.5ha was under seed cane. “My dad was a bit old-school. Most things were still done manually,” he recalls. “He’d bought a mixing tank for chemicals but never used it. They just mixed the chemicals directly in the knapsacks. This often ended up in a big mess when measurements were not done properly.” So Bheki made a few changes, like modernising production methods and paying staff electronically. “I don’t carry a lot of cash at month-end any more. It was a real security risk,” he says.
Of the total area, 89ha is arable, with 69ha currently planted. “With sugarcane, you must have a new crop planted every year. We plant about 10% of the total land under production annually,” he explains. “You only replant every 10 years. If you maintain it by weeding, fertilising and the application of pesticides, you are good for the next 10 years.”
From the 69ha that is planted, only 61ha produces commercial cane for the market. The other 8ha is used for producing seed cane. According to Bheki, seed is one of the biggest expenses for sugarcane farmers, so producing your own helps manage costs that can be as high as R1 300/t. Then you still needs 10t of seed cane to cover a hectare! “The yields from that 10t/ha can exceed 65t/ha. I harvested a staggering 100t/ha yield last season,” he says proudly.
Bheki would like to bring another 20ha into production that’s currently a natural forest with a bit of commercial timber in between. “I’ll have to remove and de-stump the trees.” In addition, he’s in for quite bit of maintenance work that will require excavators and bulldozers.
“There are some lands at the bottom of the valleys that become waterlogged during the rainy season. They need to be drained properly. Also, when my dam fills up, it backs up into my sugar-cane fields because of poor drainage,” he explains.
Bheki is pleased with his decision to stop buying seedlings and start producing his own seed cane. “It’s cheaper and hardier. Seed cane can take some battering by chemicals and fertiliser when planting, as compared to seedlings,” explains Bheki. Seedlings require special soft chemicals that cost up to R10 000 for a 20-litre bucket.
The planting, Bheki says, also gets technical and finicky, and takes up time and extra labour. About 25,000 seedlings are required for 1ha. One advantage of seedlings, he explains, is that once they’re planted they tend to grow better than sticks.
Bheki has different varieties on the farm. “I’m phasing out the N12 variety to make way for newer ones,” he says. The N39, a hardy all-purpose variety, dominates the farm. Newly introduced are N41, N51 and N52. While these new varieites are more suited to inland locations, they grow well at the coastal. Another newcomer is the N59, which he says is a fast and dense grower that can be harvested every six months.
“In the right type of soil and gradient, it grows super fast. It stays green even in the harshest winters,” he explains. The N58 is a fast grower too, but smaller – about the size of a pinky finger. The tonnage per hectare from this variety is amazing, Bheki maintains.
“The stick population and count per square metre are heavy and amazing. It is also hardy and thrives on hilltops and in sloped areas.” Recently he planted N63, the latest available variety, and is waiting to see how it performs.
Bheki does regular soil tests to help him plan and fine-tune his fertilisation programme. Planting takes place from September to December. After preparing the land and ensuring there are no volunteers (growth from last season), the cane is planted using two sticks laid horizontally facing the opposite direction of the ridges.
“You have to partner the sticks so they close the gaps when they grow,” explains Bheki. The cane is cut open between the nodes to minimise the spread of diseases and pests, especially the eldana borer. “When the cane is cut, the worm is unable to move inside the cane from one node to the other,” says Bheki. “We apply 2.3.4 fertiliser at planting before burying the sticks and compacting it firmly.”
After planting and before sprouting, Bheki applies Roundup to control weeds. “Once it’s sprouted, we apply a short-term spray for weeds that will last about three to four months until the cane is knee-high, followed by a top dress using 5.1.5 fertiliser. Then I’ll spray a second round of herbicides to kill any weeds before the cane canopies. Once it canopies, nothing will grow underneath,” Bheki explains.
Commercial cane, he says, takes up to eight months from planting to harvest in the first year. Beyond that, it can be harvested every 12 months.
“We sometimes keep it for 15 months to mature properly. But that’s optional,” he adds. During harvesting, you should be careful not to harm the mother plant by plucking it from the ground. “We use cane knives to cut as close as possible to the ground. I prefer burning the fields at harvesting time to make it easier for the cutters. When fields aren’t burned, it’s more difficult and time-consuming, especially to peal the leaves away from every stick.”
The sugar cane is marketed at Illovo Sugar’s mills in Umzinto. “We get paid on what we call the recoverable value, which is the amount of sugar in your cane. I get about 15% recoverable value from every ton of sugar cane I send to the mill,” says Bheki. His father would no doubt be very proud.