experiment

The farming experiment that became a business

When David Samutela bought his 1 000 ha farm just south of Mkushi town in Zambia’s Central Province in 2006 he had no intention of farming.

He had just retired from a corporate career at the Zambia’s national airline and bought the land as an investment. The advertisement in the newspaper said the farm had lots of water, so he thought he would buy the land and maybe later develop it for residential purposes.

David stayed in Lusaka, but started coming to his new farm to relax over weekends. He started interacting with the other farmers in the Mkushi block, mainly South African and Zimbabwean farmers who sparked his curiosity about the farming life.

After buying the land, a neighbour convinced David to buy a second-hand pivot. Today he has 300 ha under irrigation from four pivots.

“I started wondering what keeps these people in the bush,” David remembers. When he visited one of his neighbours, Peter Michaels, he was surprised to see that life on the farm could be quite comfortable.

Peter and David became good friends and Peter later convinced him to buy a second-hand pivot that was for sale and that he should plant some wheat. “I didn’t really see the point, but Peter persisted. ‘You have to try,’ he said to me.”

David’s main commodity is maize and like grain farmers everywhere his profitability hinges on the maize price. That is why good yields per hectare are important. He harvests an average of 7,5 ton/ha of seed maize and about 10 ton/ha commercial maize.

WHEAT SUCCESS

David also bought a tractor, but he didn’t have a planter, so he struggled sowing the first wheat by hand until he found a second-hand planter.

Despite his struggles, his first wheat crop was soon ready to be harvested and when the harvesting contractor came, he told David that his was the best-looking crop he’d seen in the entire Mkushi block that year. As luck would have it, wheat prices were good at the time and David started seeing the business potential of his farm.

It was virgin bush and to plant more he had to clear more fields from the natural bush. He also had to make his dam bigger. Today he has 300 ha under irrigation from four pivots.

While he sees his main business as the production of commercial maize and seed maize for Pannar, he also plants soya, wheat, beans and tomatoes and runs a commercial cattle herd of about 400 cows.

His biggest challenge is the same as that of most farmers – like with all agricultural commodities, someone else determines the price and a farmer must try to stay profitable within that price range. Yields are thus important.

On his seed maize he gets yields of 7,5 ton/ha, on his commercial maize 10 ton/ha, soya 2,5 ton/ha (this is dryland) and on his wheat, he gets 7 ton/ha. He plants Seedco’s Nduna wheat, but when it comes to maize, he is a dyed-in-the-wool Pannar man. “I have had a long relationship with Pannar, they have been good to us.”

He rotates his crop so he doesn’t plant one crop on the same field in succession. This, he believes contributes to above average yields.

IT’S ALL IN THE SOIL

Because he started farming on virgin soil after he deforested his farm, David believes he is fortunate to farm on healthy soil and plans to keep it healthy. After he’s planted maize, he plants wheat or soya in the same field.

“I plant conventional and use minimum tillage in my grain fields. We farm om sandy loam soil with clay in places. Some of the pivots are entirely on clay.”

The soils are, however, acidic and David puts down lime every year to address this. He follows a blanket approach of one ton of lime per hectare. Omnia, who carries out his soil analyses for him, also helps with drawing up a fertiliser programme for the specific crop he plants in each field.

While water is the main factor determining the extent to which farmers in the Mkushi area can expand their operations, David is very fortunate to have a large dam on his property, which offers consistent, reliable water supply.

Syngenta helps with the chemicals on the herbicide and pesticide management. The main pests are cutworm and, lately, fall armyworm. “They are now attacking the wheat,” says David. “We cannot contain them and it is important that we find chemicals that can effectively kill them.”

David uses tractors with spray carts for his spraying. He also plants three hectares of tomatoes per year, which he sells on the fresh market. “When I first encountered Tuta absoluta last year, I couldn’t believe what it was. We put out traps to manage them. The chemicals that we can use, Amiran and MRI, are very expensive, but we use them and keep changing between chemicals to combat resistance.”

David also finds infrastructure and distances to markets to be big challenges. He uses transport contractors to deliver his produce to his buyers, who are mainly in Lusaka.

Despite the challenges, David has gone from a weekend farmer experimenting with a bit of wheat to a full-time commercial farmer. “I believe once we like something we succeed. We keep learning and I attend workshops by the local farmers union and product suppliers and I learn a lot by asking questions.”

From left are Pannar’s commercial farming representative for Zambia, Kenneth Chintindi, Henry Shakwambwa who joined David as farm manager in 2009 and David Samutela.

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