Farmer finds his feet with commercial potatoes

Tshianeo Mathidi left a desk job at a local agricultural co-op to take the plunge into farming in 2001. Having grown up in Thohoyandou in rural Limpopo, he explains, it was inevitable that he would get involved in this sector one way or another. “But I thought farming was a dirty job that would never make any money,” Tshianeo says. He told Peter Mashala more about his journey from accounting to agriculture and from cattle to commercial potatoes.

Tshianeo Mathidi left a desk job at a local agricultural co-op to take the plunge into farming in 2001. Having grown up in Thohoyandou in rural Limpopo, he explains, it was inevitable that he would get involved in this sector one way or another. “But I thought farming was a dirty job that would never make any money,” Tshianeo says. He told Peter Mashala more about his journey from accounting to agriculture and from cattle to commercial potatoes.

In 1985, after he graduated, Tshianeo Mathidi landed an accounting job at an agricultural cooperative. Through this job he connected with farmers and developed a sound understanding of agriculture. In 1998, armed with some knowledge of the industry, he opened a small butchery in Thohoyandou, supplying meat sourced from local abattoirs.

But, says Tshianeo, operating like that meant he was a price-taker and could not set competitive prices. This limitation had a negative effect on his profitability.

“I soon realised that if my business was to grow and become successful, I’d have to produce my own meat,” he says. In 2001, with no stock-farming experience and no real knowledge of cattle, Tshianeo bought a Brahman bull and a few mixed breed heifers and cows from local black farmers. But the Brahman breed proved too wild for him, and he looked around for cattle that were easier to farm.

“Everybody was talking about Nguni cattle and how suited they were to Limpopo’s conditions, so I decided to give Ngunis a try,” Thianeo says. In a collaborative project with the late Chief Alfred Bele, he also started an Nguni cattle community project on a piece of land in Vuvha in the Tengwe area of Venda.

LEARNING ABOUT CATTLE

Chief Bele helped Tshianeo improve his knowledge of cattle. “I fell in love with Bonsmaras because of their calm temperament and their ability to grow and put on weight fast. After all, my business was selling meat,” Tshianeo says. By 2010, he was farming several cattle breeds on communal land in three areas in Venda.

He had set up his main operation at Nwanedi, about 40km north of Thohoyandou, where he ran a Bonsmara herd of about 100 animals, including three bulls, on 1 500ha. Tshianeo also kept a few BonsmaraBrahman crossbred animals on a friend’s farm in Tshikundu, not far from Thohoyandou.

There were also about 40 Ngunis in Vuvha, as part of the community project he had helped set up with his friend Chief Bele. They called it the Vuvha Nguni communal cattle project. In the meantime Tshianeo grew his small butchery into a sizeable wholesale business and acquired a small Grade-F abattoir in Thohoyandou.

“I slaughtered my own cattle and I bought in cattle from other local farmers,” he says. Grade-F abattoirs only slaughter about 10 cattle a day and have capacity for about 20 carcasses. “After slaughter, we weighed the carcass and paid the market-related price per kilogram”

FINDING THE RIGHT DIRECTION

While he had been growing his business and operating on communal land, Tshianeo had not given up the search for a farm of his own. Then, in 2014, his application for a government farm was approved under a 30- year lease. The only snag was that the farm was in Dendron, now known as Mogwadi, about 180km from Thohoyandou and 60km northwest of Polokwane.

So in 2015 Tshianeo relocated his operation there. “It had been a citrus farm and there were still some trees here,” he says. With the best intentions, Tshianeo carried on farming citrus for a few years, but it did not take long before he realised he was running at a loss. Fixing the situation meant dealing with some significant problems. The trees and the infrastructure were old and getting enough water to the orchards was challenging; there were too few boreholes and the drip irrigation system clogged up continuously.

“Because the trees were old, the yield dropped every year, so much so that the cost of running the farm became greater than the income. I lost a lot of money and nearly went bankrupt,” he says. Looking for ways to stay afloat, Tshianeo started growing cash crops on a small scale: he planted 2ha of potatoes, and 2ha to 5ha of watermelons, butternuts, cabbage and tomatoes.

However, this still was not enough to make a good living. In addition, dividing his attention between his businesses was proving to be a challenge, and the Thohoyandou operations were taking strain. “I was forced to relook my whole operation and I made a decision to focus on the farm,” he explains.

Things began to change for Tshianeo when he applied for and was granted funding from the Presidential Employment Stimulus Package in 2020. He initially drew up a new citrus farming business plan, but then a conversation he had with Dr Alidzulwi Naledzani, an official from the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform, made him rethink his farming strategy.

“Not only did Dr Naledzani change my mind, but I think his advice saved this farm,” Tshianeo says. “He told me that my farm lies in the potato-growing area and it would make a lot of sense to grow potatoes. Also, he said there would be commercial farmers willing to help and mentor me.”

Tshianeo engaged with Potatoes South Africa, who helped him with a business plan through its emerging farmer-development programme. Once this had been approved, he was allocated two mentors, one to focus on infrastructure and the other on production.

“I got the approval last year, and as soon as the funds were released, we started with land preparation; putting in the much-needed infrastructure, including centre pivots and new boreholes – we now have eight in total; and dam repair,” he explains.

Land preparation started towards the end of 2020; the first planting was in March 2021, followed by the second crop that was planted in August. “These guys from Potatoes South Africa really made it easier for me. Their programme helps farmers with seed, in a diminishing arrangement, for five years,” explains Tshianeo. “In the first year, they provide 100% of the seed, after that it is reduced every year and then after five years the agreement comes to an end. This way they are making sure that there are no permanent beneficiaries.”

PREPARING FOR POTATOES

Tshianeo debushed and used a bulldozer to remove roots and break up the soil. “I followed up with a standard ripper and disced in a crisscross pattern about six to seven times on the virgin land to make the soil very loose,” he explains. “We were also putting in the irrigation infrastructure, connecting the cables and laying down the pipelines.”

The fertiliser goes down after ripping and discing. According to Tshianeo, the standard fertilisers are 2:3:4 (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) or MAP (monoammonium phosphate). “But the soil test analysis will tell you what you need,” he says. After applying the recommended fertiliser, they go back with a ripper and disc one last time before irrigating, and then they plant. Tshianeo plants the Mondial seed variety, which has a reputation for early tuber formation and a high yield. “Mondial is the recommended cultivar with high yields and bigger potatoes,” he says.

Potatoes are known to be a tricky crop, so once the crop is in, a farmer must be vigilant. Tshianeo says some difficulties such as disease, heatwaves, wind and heavy rains are to be expected, but new challenges include load shedding, which causes pivots to get stuck. Wild animals may also be a problem, he says: kudu, warthog and impala can affect his yield.

“The worst is the warthog, which digs out the tubers. They simply harvest your potatoes!” he explains. Other threats are tuber moth and early blight. “The tuber moth is dangerous because it destroys the leaves and then goes down to the tuber.”

Tshianeo emphasises the importance of following good irrigation, spraying and fertilising programmes to ensure good yields. “We spray, fertilise and irrigate weekly.” He buys ready-mixed fertilisers from approved suppliers who have been vetted by Potatoes South Africa. This is done to save farmers from making mistakes and wasting money.

Tshianeo says the entire processs usually takes about 18 weeks from planting to lifting. “In the last month, we check the tubers to see if they are ready by looking at the potato skin. When the crop is ready, we spray off the leafy part of the plant with a chemical called Paragone,” he explains.

One needs to be careful that the crop does not have tuber moth when spraying off, because once the leaves die, the moth will move to the underground tubers and this will affect the yields, he says. “This is why it’s very important to follow a strict spraying programme.”

SORTING, PACKING AND MARKETING

Although he has a fully equipped sorting shed and packhouse on the farm, Tshianeo’s first crop was taken by Soetdkor Farms, belonging to experienced commercial potato farmer Wimpie van der Merwe. “I did this deliberately because I have no experience in this field and I wanted to learn as much as I could from knowledgeable farmers,” Tshianeo explains.

There were other advantages to this decision too: apart from the excellent advice he gets from Wimpie, the Soetdkor Farms packhouse has large contracts in the potato sector, so Tshianeo markets some of his crop through them. “I also take potatoes to the Joburg and Tshwane Fresh Produce Markets,” he adds.

He avoids informal, cash-based markets because of safety concerns. “I don’t want people coming to the farm with a lot of cash; it’s a security risk. The only clients I sell to are those who buy in bulk – say, a pallet or more,” Tshianeo explains. All payments are made via cashless transactions.

According to him, the potato farmer’s biggest challenge is land. “To run a sustainable business in the potato industry, farmers need land because potatoes must be rotated,” he points out. Potatoes can only return to a field four years after they have been planted there, because of disease. Tshianeo currently plants 10ha to potatoes, but plans to expand as he gains experience.

“In 2022 I want to increase to 20ha, and in 2023 to 30ha,” he explains. He has about 160ha available for this expansion. “My plan is to find more land to grow the business in future.” With his determination and decent mentoring from his neighbours, Tshianeo seems set to succeed.

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