Few things are as satisfying to a farmer than when his son (or daughter!) returns to the family farm to take their legacy of hard work and sacrifice further. It was no different when Clifford Mthimkulu joined his dad, Koos, on the family’s mixed farming operation in Senekal in the Free State in 2008.
The fact that Koos was the first in his family to be able to hand over a farm to his son made the occasion even more special but, as Clifford tells African Farming editor Peter Mashala, the transition that comes with succession isn’t always plain sailing!
Clifford Mthimkulu (31) grew up watching and then helping his dad, Koos, as he did his duties as farm labourer on Frikkie du Preez’s farm Mieliebult in the Libertas area of Senekal in the Free State in the 1980s. Tending livestock on Mieliebult after school, on weekends and even over holidays was the beginning of Clifford’s deep love of farming. Today that passion has culminated in him recently being chosen as a finalist for the prestigious 2020 Grain SA New Era Farmer of the Year award, which his father has already won.
“The sound and smell of tractors working, the memories of my father welding, grinding, repairing, and building implements from scratch into amazing working tools – those are the memories that inspire my farming career,” Clifford recalls.
“And it wasn’t by luck but through hard work that I can now follow in my father’s footsteps today.”
Koos, born Moleleki Jacob Mthimkulu, was born on Julius Bobbert’s farm in the Free State district of Paul Roux in 1955. At an early age, Koos started working as a shepherd and later as a dairy assistant. After being promoted to tractor operator, Koos decided to spread his wings and join Du Preez on Mieliebult, where Clifford was born. In time Koos discovered his mechanical talent and started working on all sorts of implements, honing the remarkable skills that eventually saw him not only repairing tractors but also designing and building farming implements.
GETTING A BREAK
Koos’ big break came in 2004, when Du Preez decided to focus on livestock farming and gave Koos the opportunity to buy all his unused equipment – two tractors, a three-row and a four-row plough, a four-row planter, a combine harvester and all the workshop tools. Du Preez agreed to sell Koos the equipment cheaply in installments and, with the option to lease 55ha of land, Koos started his farming operation in 1995.
To supplement his income, Koos also used his newly acquired equipment to do contract work, helping other developing and commercial farmers in the area. This involved all the land preparations, planting, spraying, harvesting, as well as grain delivery to silos.
“Although the equipment was old, it was always well maintained and got the job done,” recalls Clifford.
As his skills and confidence grew, Koos decided to buy his own farm. In 2006, after a lengthy application process, he was allocated the farm Astoria in the Senekal district through the government’s Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS).
The 493ha farm was bought by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) and leased to him. About 148ha of the land is medium potential arable soil and the rest (345ha) natural grazing. On the downside, the lease arrangement meant he has no title to the land, making it almost impossible to access funds from commercial banks.
Clifford recalls how his father had to bootstrap the farm, as there was no chance of him get any funding. Firstly, the farm didn’t belong to him, so he couldn’t use it as collateral to raise a loan and, secondly, he didn’t have any financial track record. As a result, Koos used savings from his contract work to plant 30ha of sunflower in 2006. Even though it was his first attempt, Koos drew on his years of experience as a contractor to manage a 1.4t/ha yield, which is considered average for the area. The profit from this crop, along with income from his livestock sales and contract work, was used to get the next crop in, this time on 80ha.
“The money that was left went straight into improving farm infrastructure like windmills and reservoirs,” recalls Clifford.
Like on many family farms when a son returns, things took some time to settle down. “The farm couldn’t initially sustain all of us. I had to find other ways to generate an income,” says Clifford.
In 2007 he started a law degree but after a semester he realised it wasn’t for him. However, education is extremely important to his father, who never had any, so Clifford returned to school and completed a marketing course at Motheo TVET College. He later also qualified as a paramedic at Welkom EMMS and worked at the Senekal hospital before moving to Bloemfontein, where he sold Chub alarm systems.
But Clifford wasn’t fulfilled, and when his dad asked him to return to the farm full time, he didn’t hesitate.
“I had already decided I’d make the farm work, no matter what,” he recalls. In 2008 he started working alongside his dad. “As we grew our operation and built a financial track record, we eventually did manage to secure a production loan from VKB,” he explains. “We only qualified for R500 000 because we couldn’t put up any security besides our implements.” The loan only covered 80ha, which increased the total area under production to 110ha that year, including the 30ha they had already planted.
MAKING IT WORK
In 2011, Astoria got its big break. Omnia granted Koos and Clifford a 100% production loan without needing any security.
“They used the crop as security and provided all the technical assistance we needed,” recalls Clifford.
“Most of the expertise came from them – soil profiling, testing and rehabilitation, including agronomy services. From the 110ha we planted the previous year, we managed to increase the number of hectares to 300. We then also leased an additional 150ha from other farmers.”
The results were so impressive that Koos won the prestigious Grain SA New Era Farmer of the Year award in 2011.
In the following year, Astoria was included in the government’s Recapitalisation and Development Scheme. Grain SA, which managed the whole process, helped the Mthimkulus with a business plan and identified where they needed new or better machinery. New implements were bought, including a John Deere N7200 Series four-row planter.
However, there were some serious challenges too. Initially, the DRDLR agreed to be involved for five years, financing 100% of the business plan in the first year, 80% in the second, followed by 60%, 40% and 20% in the final year.
“The first year went okay, but in the second year they just disappeared, only to resurface in the third year to fund 60%. That was also the last year we saw them.”
Astoria managed to recover from these setbacks, though. Today they farm a total of 913ha, 420ha of which is leased. Of the leased land, 120ha is arable, and 300ha is grazing. This brings the total hectarage of arable land to 264ha, with 645ha being used for grazing. Of the arable land, Clifford managed to finance the planting of 259ha with cash. “In the past production season  only an overdraft from the bank was used to cover where we fell short. The farm is now paying for itself,” Clifford says.
Maize, soybean and sunflower are produced in rotation, guided by the soil’s potential and climate. “We use different seed cultivars mainly from Pioneer and Pannar in a bid to get the best possible yields,” says Clifford. For sunflower they use Pannar’s Clearfield cultivar, whereas both their yellow and white maize are Roundup Ready cultivars from Pannar and Pioneer.
Working with these companies greatly improves the farm’s performance. Their expert advice and support have helped increase maize yields from 3t/ha of to 5.6t/ha, whereas sunflower increased from 1.2t/ha in 2006 to 1.8t/ha today. “I am extremely proud of what we have achieved, even if I have to say so myself,” laughs Clifford. “I’m incredibly happy and satisfied.”
USE WHAT YOU HAVE
Clifford says a lack of resources has taught them to make do with what machinery they have, and years of watching his father fix and maintain equipment has made him quite the handyman.
“Our equipment always needs to work optimally. Money is always tight, so not everything has to be new. Some of our equipment might be second-hand, but it’s always in the best possible condition. We believe in John Deere machinery. It strong and last long.”
Despite their limited resources, Astoria has moved from conventional farming to no-till. Not only does it save on input costs, it also helps to preserve their land, and keep the soil fertile. Clifford remembers how much time and money was spent preparing the soil with conventional farming.
“We spent about R5 000 per hectare to plant sunflower. Having started no-till six years ago, that has now gone down to R3 800. This is a huge cost saving when one considers the average yield for sunflower is 1.4t/ha, with only 0.4t/ha being profit. The R1 200 I save per hectare is a significant improvement on my profit margin.”
They also use less seasonal labour for weeding now.
Like many dryland crop farmers, Clifford runs livestock to manage the risk of cropping – a herd of 150 Bonsmara cows and eight bulls, and about 180 mutton merino ewes. About 80 cattle run on Astoria, with the rest grazing 300ha on the leased Wilgeboom Farm belonging to Dawie van der Merwe, an old family friend. “If it wasn’t for our animals, Astoria wouldn’t have made it through the three-year-long drought we’ve come through. I can’t recommend diversification enough,” advises Clifford.
The livestock operation is doing well.
“We have a 90% calving and lambing rate, which I think has a lot to do with our no-nonsense approach to animal health,” explains Clifford. “My father always says, ‘Care for your animals and they will care for you.’” Private and state veterinarians help with the inoculation programme, and Clifford buys most of the medication from Elanco.
Clifford constantly tries to improve their cattle herd and sheep flock, and dreams of one day having a Bonsmara stud herd. He’s inspired by legendary breeders like Nick Serfontein of Sernick Bonsmara near Edenville outside Kroonstad and Arthur de Villiers of Arcadia Bonsmara from Vrede. He also never misses their auctions.
“What I’ve learned from them is that investing in the best quality genes you can afford will make you good money. Just look at the latest Sernick auction. A bull was sold for more than R1 million. That’s mind-blowing!”
Besides large stock, Clifford also markets live broilers in the township. Then there is still their contracting business, which today includes a trailer- and truck-hiring business, as well as speculation, which involves buying and selling livestock.
LEAVING A LEGACY
“My goal is to build this enterprise to a really profitable commercial operation,” says Clifford. “My father built this business up from scratch to the functioning farm I took over a few years ago. Now it’s my responsibility to ensure I don’t hand over a limping business to the next generation.”
And the next generation is already here. Clifford is married to Nolwazi, and they have a son, Ntando (5), and a daughter, Avethandwa (3). “I took over the business as the son but, yes, I’m prepared to hand my farm over to my daughter, should my son not want to farm. Both children must therefore play an equal role on the farm and I try to involve both as much as I can in the business, so they can start to understand what farming is like.”