Dr Job Mthombeni has come a long way since his days as a farm labourer. Thanks partly to a successful construction business, he has been able to make his farming dreams come true. Hard work, planning and the ability to learn from his mistakes have also played a huge role in Job’s path to commercial farming. He talks to Peter Mashala about lessons learnt, and the way forward.
On his farm Kromkrans in the Gert Sibande District, between Hendrina and Carolina in the south of Mpumalanga, Dr Job Mthombeni farms apples, grain and beef. Once a farmworker, he bought Kromkrans in 2000.
In 2011 he bought another farm of 1 000ha in Standerton – bringing his total hectarage to 1 217ha. He runs a mixed farming operation of 20ha of apples, 500ha maize and soya beans, 62ha bluegum trees, a breeding herd of 500 cows, a small flock of laying hens and some sheep.
A STEADY CLIMB
Born on the farm Vlaklaagte near Bethal, Job grew up on the SIS Estate, where his parents were farmworkers. “I helped out on the farm during school holidays before taking on seasonal work and then working fulltime on another farm, Bosmanspoort, owned by Fanie Nel, also in Bethal,” he recalls. He spent 16 years working for Fanie, much of it as a driver of tractors, and later trucks.
“I delivered sand to township builders. For extra income I would market myself as a builder, as I had taught myself to build while still doing general work on the farm,” he explains.
On weekends Job built small two and three-roomed township houses, and when the demand for building grew he left his job to concentrate on construction. “I still loved farming, but construction was paying better and I was working for myself,” he says.
His construction business took off and soon he was getting bigger contracts. All that Job achieved, he did with no formal training or education. “I was just passionate about building. I worked myself up the ranks and got a few awards in the process,” he says. Among these were an international building award in Madrid, Spain, and an International Platinum Star award.
A respected person in the building industry, he was appointed as director to the boards of Eastern Transvaal Housing and Eastern Transvaal Township in 1996. Later he joined The Estate Agency Affairs Board and the board of Nu-Way Housing.
“I was also a director of Mabele Chain Stores and I was a founding board member of the Motheo Group with Thandi Ndlovu,” he says. Today Job is also the deputy chairman of the Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber.
In 2000 Job applied for and got Kromkrans farm through Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development. “I had never lost my passion for farming, but I wanted to own my own farm and to produce on it,” says Job.
When he took over Kromkrans, the farm was dilapidated and there was no machinery. “I started by fixing a few things and I bought a second-hand John Deere tractor so that I could plough the fields,” he recalls. He bought cattle and sheep and planted 50ha to maize, which he increased to 100ha within a few years.
Currently, he runs a crossbred herd of 100 breeding cows on Kromkrans and plants 300ha to maize and soya beans; he leases an additional 200ha of arable land.In 2009, with the help of a government grant, Job planted 5ha of apples. In 2011, he bought 1 000ha of farmland in Standerton, 110km from Kromkrans. Here he plants maize and soya beans on 400ha and uses the remaining land to graze his 400-cow Bonsmara breeding herd.
There is also a 62ha blue-gum plantation on this property, and Job has just received environmental impact assessment approval to put up a piggery.
DIVERSITY WITH APPLES
Over the years Job has suffered crop losses, mainly caused by hail but also by other weather-related events, that have cost him a lot of money.
“With grain crops, if it isn’t hail, it’s too much rain that knocks production. Soya beans are especially sensitive,” he explains. This season, rain held up planting and the fields that had been planted were waterlogged for weeks.
“The crop is now infested with weeds as we’ve not been able to spray herbicides, and it’s going to affect our yields. You can have one good year with grains and then you can have three bad years in a row.”
While he was researching a crop with less risk, Job discovered that the Gert Sibande District is ideal for apple production. But, he says, because apples are a long-term investment the margins for error are smaller than they are in the case of cash crops like soya beans and maize.
“We are in a hail belt here, so we planted our apple trees under hail nets with the help of Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme funding,” Job says. His first commercial apple harvest was sold to Spar shops in the area.
“The second year… I’m not sure who put the word out because there were so many bakkies and lorries coming from Limpopo, and locally, in and out of the farm, taking apples,” recalls Job. The customer base grew, and clients came from as far away as Swaziland and Thohoyandou in Limpopo.
“The informal market is great here because, besides the Free State, none of the inland provinces have apples. Even elsewhere in Mpumalanga there are no apples, only here. It’s the closest place for people in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Swaziland to get apples.”
By 2015 Job had 11.5ha of orchards, which he had planted to Early Red, Royal Gala, Granny Smith, Royal Beaut and Cripps Pink varieties. But there were some challenges. The orchards are near a river; the soil is moist most of the time and the netting was showing signs of collapse.
“I should have spoken to a soil scientist before I planted my apple orchards,” Job admits. “I would have known where was best for apple production and I could have sorted out soil imbalances and drainage problems before I planted. Fixing problems in mature orchards is more difficult and more expensive than doing it before you put the trees in.”
He had planned to expand to 60ha of apples but did not have the necessary irrigation rights. “After a lengthy process, I finally have 100ha of scheduled irrigation,” says Job. “Now I can increase my apple
production to 100ha.”
In 2020 work began on orchard expansion, this time after getting the advice of a soil scientist. “Last year we planted 20 000 new trees on 10ha and we have started relocating the old trees to this portion as well,” explains Job.
He adds that he was hit by a veld fire four years ago and fire-damaged trees in the old orchard had to be taken out. His current apple production is 20ha.
LOOKING AFTER TREES
The new orchards are planted to Sundowner, Granny Smith, Big Bucks, Rosy Glow and Royal Beaut varieties. Job has introduced a training technique that involves bending the trees for optimal production. The main stem is bent horizontally when the tree is a year old. This technique encourages more shoots, which means more productive trees.
“We are aiming for at least seven branches per tree,” says Job. “Because this was their first year in production, we only allowed four apples per tree and we have already started picking.”
Job says the trees must be thinned when they start bearing fruit. “By thinning out some of the smaller apples from the cluster, the remaining fruit grow bigger because the tree puts all its energy into those apples. If this is not done, especially the first time the tree bears fruit, the apples tend to drop off the branch, resulting in fewer fruit or no fruit,” he explains.
Although this is the first fruit of the new trees, Job says the harvest looks beautiful and has been selling well on the informal market. At the end of the season they will see what the total yield has been. “We don’t expect much, but next season we are looking at 40t/ha, considering the condition of the trees. If we stick to a good spraying, fertilising and irrigating programme, we should get a good harvest,” he explains.
“We could reach yields of between 80t/ha and 100t/ha when the trees are mature at 4 years of age.” Right now, Job has his sights set on the local market but once he has expanded the orchards and the trees have matured, he plans to look at the export market.
“The deputy president, DD Mabuza, has secured a market for Mpumalanga apple growers with Oman in the Middle East. This is what I’ll be targeting,” he says.
MAIZE AND SOYA
Job rotates soya beans and maize on 700ha. “The importance of crop rotation cannot be over-emphasised; monocropping destroys your soils,” Job insists. Legumes such as soya beans work well in rotation with maize as
they fix nitrogen in the soil, which maize needs for good yields. He says his input suppliers advise him on cultivars, chemicals and equipment.
He tests the soil every year to give him a guide as to which fertilisers and nutrients he needs that season. “I share the soil test results with my chemical and seed suppliers, who advise me on which chemicals to use and the application rates, as well as suitable cultivars for the season,” explains Job.
The planting season starts in October, but if the rains are early, he might begin in late September. “We prepare our soil just after the first rains, sometimes around 15 September, by ripping and disking.”
Although most farmers prefer to rip once in two or three years, Job rips every year. “Only disking may result in planting in shallow soils. I like to say I don’t farm dust because it’s like putting your seed in the dust, which means your plants can’t access the nutrients. He adds that, because the real soil and its nutrients are much deeper, he rips down to between 500mm and 600mm.
This, according to him, helps with water drainage and when there is a dry season, the roots can easily penetrate the soil to follow the moisture. Disking without ripping also raises the risk of compacted soil, which the roots cannot penetrate.
Job says the annual rainfall on both farms is between 400mm and 500mm. “But with this climate change, one is never too sure. The new conditions have brought challenges, like new pests we are not familiar with,” he says.
They scout frequently, even after spraying. The scouts collect live insects to be sent to the lab for identification. “From the lab, we’ll get information on which chemicals to use.” Climate change, according to Job, seems to cause more hailstorms and at times too much rain.
“This year we have had above-average rainfall, which had a negative effect on most of our soya-bean crop.”
The average maize yields in Hendrina and Standerton are 7t/ha, whereas soya-bean yields range between 2.5t/ha and 3t/ha. Patience and perseverance are qualities that have paid off for Job – a man who surely is a worthy role model for aspiring black farmers everywhere.