Former miner finds success with conservation farming

Award-winning cattle and crop farmer Solomon Masango farms in the rolling hills of the Carolina district of Mpumalanga. Producing maize, soya beans and dry beans in a conservation-farming, rotation system, his cattle help to further optimised profits. And while his impressive farming business has seen him rake in the farming awards, the road from being a mineworker to a top farmer hasn’t always been easy. Today the struggle to secure land that he can call his own, and where he can build his farming business to its true potential, still continues for this inspiring farmer. 

In 2000 Solomon Masango presented his future wife’s family with seven cows to pay her lobola. The family accepted four cows as part payment but wanted cash for the remaining portion of Maria’s lobola. Once the cash was paid, Solomon kept the three cows the family rejected and these animals formed the small, but solid, cornerstone of his farming business.

In 2015, a decade and a half later, Solomon was selected as the 2015 Grain SA/ABSA/John Deere Financial New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year. He farms 1 500ha, on three farms, with 600ha under grain and the remainder used for grazing. He owns a paid-up fleet of tractors, planters and harvesters and runs 300 crossbred cows, 11 Bonsmara bulls and two Boran bulls, 120 goats and a few sheep. 

Good lessons learnt young

Solomon says his path to success was not an easy one and came with a generous quota of blood, sweat and tears. His father died before he was born, and he was raised by his mother. He left school in Grade 7 and moved to Pretoria to find work so that he could help his mother.

In the Jacaranda city he worked in garden services and did other odd jobs. But Solomon – a man with drive and ambition – was on the move and with the help of a client, who became his sponsor, he got his matric. After matric Solomon registered with the University of South Africa for an accounting degree, which he did not finish due to a lack of funds. “I wanted to become a chartered accountant, but I dropped out in my second year because of money problems,” recalls Solomon.

In 1995, he landed a job as a truck driver for Benicon Opencast Mining, a company providing mining services, including drilling, mining, cutting, blasting, crushing and rehabilitation. A few months into the job Solomon approached the company’s management and asked if he could study. They obliged by putting him through a blasting course. 

Once he completed the course, Solomon was promoted and worked as a blaster for several years. “With a better income my life started to improve,” he says. But there was a fire burning in Solomon’s heart and he studied further until he got a blasting engineer’s qualification.

In 1999, Benicon retrenched some of its workers and Solomon was moved to an associate company, African Explosive Limited, which serviced De Beers’ diamond mining operation in Musina. There he specialised in blasting, from the design and planning stages through to execution. In 2003 he was promoted again and moved to Rustenburg, blasting in various mines for platinum, chrome and steel.

Then, in 2004 things went sour for him with the company. “I was overlooked for a more senior post in Tanzania with better perks and salary. They chose a white junior employee who didn’t have the qualifications and experience I had for that post,” he recalls. “I was so upset that I decided to leave.”

In November 2004 he resigned. Although company management asked him to reconsider Solomon was no longer interested in staying on.

Going solo

It would have been easy enough, given his experience and qualifications, to find another job, but Solomon decided he’d rather start his own business. “There was no guarantee that what had happened to me once, would not happen again,” he explains. 

He worked in the taxi industry for a short while, but the industry did not feel “right” for him, so he sold some of his taxis and bought buses to start a school transport business. 

Meanwhile, Solomon’s herd of cattle had grown from three cows to 45. “I had moved them from home and was grazing them on rented land on a farm near Breyten,” recalls Solomon. “After some thought, I decided to move into farming fulltime and I quit the transport business.” By 2009 his cattle numbers had increased to 60 cows. 

Taking a brave step, he sold off all his buses and bought a second-hand tractor. His plan was to plant a few hectares for cattle feed and to make some bales. In the same year his community’s restitution claim was successful and six farms in the Moedig area were returned to the community.

Solomon leased communal land and moved all his cattle to Moedig, where he planted a 50ha block of maize using his second-hand tractor. “I started with 50ha on the farm and worked my tractor two shifts to get the planting done. I had just hired my first employee who worked the day shifts while I worked the night shifts,” laughs Solomon.

The timing was right and after a good season, he made enough money to buy a second tractor. The following season, he increased his planted acreage to 100ha. At this time he was introduced to Afgri who gave him production credit and put him in touch with his mentor, Nick Basson.

Always eager to learn, Solomon began to attend farming courses, including those offered by Grain SA. In 2015 Solomon was named the Grain SA/ABSA/John Deere Financial New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year and won a John Deere tractor as a prize.

“Instead of bringing joy, the tractor became a source of new problems. Members of the CPA (community property association) laid claim to the tractor on the grounds that as it was their farm, the tractor belonged to the community,” says Solomon. The argument progressed to a stage that the community kicked him off the portion he rented.

Expansion through problem-solving

In 2016 Solomon approached a neighbouring CPA that was also granted their land through a restitution claim. He was given a lease for 180ha of arable land. “The farm was in a bad state and needed a lot of work to bring it back to production,” says Solomon.

In 2018 Solomon’s application for a government farm through LRAD was granted and he was given a 30-year lease on an 858ha government-owned farm outside Belfast. He now had a little more than 300ha of grain producing land. On the Moedig CPA farm, Solomon still occupied a portion of land directly linked to his family.

“My great grandfather, my grandfather and my father are buried on that farm and their graves are still there. I told them they cannot remove me from that portion,” says Solomon. He runs livestock and plants 80ha on the farm.

He leases another 300ha from farmers near Breyton, which brings his grain production to 600ha under maize, soya beans and dry beans. In these lands, 25% is planted to white maize, 25% to yellow maize, 40% to soya beans and 10% to dry beans in rotation.

No-till production

Solomon plants from mid-October to mid-December. Maize and soya beans are generally in before December. “I plant the dry beans by mid-December because they don’t need a lot of rain. It should be late in the season with no danger of rain when pod formation begins. Rain during pod formation will seriously decrease yields,” explains Solomon. The regional rainfall is between 600mm and 800mm a year. 

Solomon is a no-till farmer so there is no land preparation. “I use two no-till 6- and 10-row planters, which need big tractors with lots of kilowatt capacity. After planting I spray with Roundup to kill existing weeds that will compete with my germinating plants,” he explains. Only Roundup-ready soya bean seed is used.

“I don’t use Roundup-ready maize because of the difficulty of spraying off the remains of the past harvest, which may have germinated by the time you plant,” he explains.

Solomon says although he has cattle grazing on the maize stover his lands need no ripping as there is very little compaction. “Many people say that cattle compact the soil, but I have a different view on this. As a rule, cattle graze in camps where they trample plants continuously, but still, the grass grows,” argues Solomon.

His opinion is that cattle help to work residues into the soil through trampling. He adds that the soil also benefits from the urine and dung of the animals. 

According to Solomon, the good thing about no-till is that minimal disturbance means moisture is retained in the soil, unlike the conventional way of turning soil and allowing air through it that dries it, killing most of the living organisms underneath.

“These organisms help to maintain the integrity of your soil structure. The earthworms underneath the surface feed on old crop residues and loosen the soil. These underground organisms do a very important job for free, and save me a lot of diesel,” he adds. 

He says no-till per hectare costs are lower than the costs involved with tilling in the conventional manner. “Crop rotation also saves a lot of money, especially on fertiliser,” explains Solomon. He does not fertilise his beans but rather opts to use the inoculation method while still getting 3t/ha from his soya beans and 1t/ha from dry beans. Maize yields range from 8t/ha to 9t/ha (dryland). “One needs a yield of at least 4t/ha for maize, or 1t/ha of soya beans to break even. Anything above that is profit,” says Solomon. He plants fewer hectares of dry beans because of the high labour requirements.

Solomon puts down fertiliser at a rate of 300kg/ha on his maize. He follows up with 250kg/ha of nitrogen-based top dressing. “When I plant the soya beans in that block the following year, I don’t fertilise. Soya beans are not heavy feeders and the available nutrients are sufficient,” explains Solomon. He says beans, which are legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil where it can be used by the next maize crop. 

He harvests from April to July and markets his maize and beans through Afgri. He sells the white maize and a portion of the yellow maize to a private miller in his area. His deal with the miller is a good one because there are no storage and handling fees, which means a good profit.

“I have a contract to sell Afgri 75% of my soya beans at a price fixed at planting; the other 25% is sold to them using the Safex price,” he explains.

Land challenges 

Solomon is looking for a farm where he can get better security of tenure as he is currently facing challenges on the two farms that form a big part of his operation. “I’ve been leasing from the CPA for six years now and every year I have to reapply. I need more certainty for my business,” says Solomon.

He originally leased the land for R30 000 a year but last year the CPA demanded R300 per hectare per month, which worked out to R360 000 a year. “I had to involve the department and through that intervention, we settled on R90 000 per annum. From the 180ha I leased from the CPA I had to drop to 100 ha,” explains Solomon. 

On the farm he leases from the government, Solomon faces problems of vandalism and uncertainty. The farm is next to a mine and there are rumours that the mine wants the farm to expand its operations, an event that could happen within five years.

“I can’t make any significant changes or investments with this possibility looming over me,” says Solomon. The farm also shares a border fence with the mine, which is regularly cut by thieves that steal from the mine’s diesel supply.

“Every other day I must fix the fence after they’ve cut it to enter and exit the mine. I have to fix the fences because I have livestock and they need protection,” he explains. 

Despite the challenges, Solomon is optimistic about his business and the future of farming in South Africa. “I always tell myself one thing and that is that even with the challenges, I’m surviving and doing okay. This is what keeps me going,” he says.

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