From humble beginnings with little more than the clothes on her back and ten cattle, Loretta Visagie has built a healthy diversified farming business in under a decade. She has two outstanding character traits that have made this seemingly impossible story possible: She never gives up and she actively seeks out opportunities to learn about farming and to network with others. Loretta had a dream and she tells African Farming’s Peter Mashala about how she turned that dream into a reality on her farm, Kings Farming Cooperative.
Loretta Visagie arrived on her farm in Klipkop in 2013 with ten cattle that health inspectors had told her to remove from the backyard of her house in Springs township, east of Johannesburg. She had no car, no tractor, and not a single farming implement. But what she did have was a dream to farm.
The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform had allocated Loretta a government-owned farm to lease and when she went to look at the land, she found there was nothing there except an old farmhouse. Undaunted, she asked her children to fetch her bed and some blankets so that she could move in immediately.
“My kids were shocked that I wanted to stay and worried about me sleeping here alone in a strange place where I knew no one,” says Loretta.
In the nine years that have followed, she has built up a mixed farming operation that she hopes to leave to her children, Natasha King and Adel Visagie, and to her grandson, Tyreek Visagie, who lives on the farm with his mother. Loretta’s partner, John Lushaba, also lives on the farm.
The farm has 332ha of maize and soya beans, 140 cattle, 145 mixed breed sheep, 38 pigs and 5ha of vegetables. But no matter how far she has come, Loretta says farming is never easy. “When I got here there were no implements, no machinery, no fences and no infrastructure. It took three years before I could start doing anything meaningful,” she says. “And still, every day comes with its own challenges. We’ve had drought, we’ve had veld fires, and we’ve had stock theft.”
FINDING HER FARM
Loretta was born and raised in the Eastern Cape living with her grandfather, who was a communal farmer. “In those times we used horses to round up our cattle,” she says.
In 1981 she moved to Johannesburg and settled in Springs township where she set up and ran small businesses. Soon she was speculating with cattle, temporarily housing the animals she bought at auction in her backyard. “I bought cattle and sold them to people in the township for various occasions. I also raised calves and sold them as weaners,” explains Loretta. There would be 10 animals or more in her backyard at any one time.
Then her neighbours started complaining about the flies and the health authorities told her to remove the animals. Loretta approached the local council for a piece of land and was given a plot just outside the residential area. But it was still too close and the complaints continued.
The saleyard is a great place for networking and in 2013 while at an auction, Loretta was sharing her problems with other sellers when she was overheard by a woman who worked for the Germiston-based office of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. This lady told her to apply for a government farm through the land reform programme.
“Until that moment I didn’t know there was such a thing as government farms but the following Monday I was on the train to Pretoria. I arrived at the department, filled in my application and handed it over to an official,” explains Loretta.
Not content to leave things to others, she kept phoning the department to see whether there was any progress on her case. But there was a long list of people who had applied for land and she was told she would have to wait. Eventually Loretta went back to the department. “I hadn’t made an appointment and I had to wait the whole day to see the director,” she says. After that meeting Loretta was invited to an interview. It went well and got her the approval she needed.
Weeks later a call came through to let her know there was a farm available for her. “The lady on the phone said they had found a farm for me but that it was in Vereeniging, far from Springs,” recalls Loretta. “At that point, I didn’t care where it was. I told her I’ll take it.” She met the department’s officials on the farm the next day.
THE WAY FORWARD
When Loretta moved to the farm, she had only the ten cows she had brought from Springs. “I didn’t have a single agricultural implement. I woke up every morning with my pliers to fix the fence where it was broken,” she laughs.
She carried on speculating with cattle to bring some cash in, buying her animals from a saleyard in Randfontein and selling them at one in Springs. She made a conscious effort to introduce herself to her neighbours, which was how she met Amos Njoro, her first mentor. “Amos was my saviour. He helped me apply for the recapitalisation programme funds that I got in 2016,” explains Loretta.
The recap money funded the purchase of second-hand tractors and implements and she started planting. With Amos’ help, Loretta planted 143ha of dryland maize and got her personal best yield of 7t/ha. She increased the hectares planted to maize every year and by 2019 she had 300ha planted to maize.
Many of those seasons were spent in trial- and-error learning. “Some years I would make money, some years I would just break even, and there were times when I made losses,” explains Loretta.
She says poor cash flow makes planting, and building up a herd, difficult. “When you farm grain, the money comes in once a year. There were times when I would run out of money and couldn’t pay my workers. I was struggling with cash flow, and I knew I could not go on like that,” says Loretta.
SAB STEPS IN TO HELP
One of her small businesses in Springs was a tavern and through this, she had interacted with South African Breweries (SAB) and was also a shareholder in the SAB Zenzele share scheme. “I always read their information brochures and I came across information about SAB’s empowerment programmes.”
She approached SAB to help her establish a vegetable production unit and was approved for a grant to set up vegetable farming under shade nets. “SAB helped me put in an irrigation system, pump station, packhouse and 3ha under shade netting,” she adds.
The company also hired an experienced manager and general workers who were paid from a budget allocated to her.
“I was lucky because the empowerment scheme had a holistic approach to its support strategy,” she says.
Loretta’s main crop is spinach, which the farm supplies to Boxer Supermarkets, Harvest Fresh and hawkers. They also grow broccoli and cabbage on request from Harvest Fresh. “We plan our vegetable production to ensure that we have crops throughout the year to supply the market,” she says.
“After we have ripped, disced and made the seedbeds, we put down kraal manure before planting.” Loretta applies 2.3.2 fertiliser two days after planting, and two weeks later she puts down LAN (nitrogen, calcium and magnesium). The spraying programme depends on the pests and diseases that are prevalent at the time. “We scout for insects every week to help us decide when and what to spray for,” she explains.
Spinach is an easy crop, says Loretta. Harvesting starts from six to eight weeks after planting and continues for at least three months. The farm had contracts to supply Spar and Pick n Pay but lost them after months of covid-19 lockdowns. They now have new challenges due to the heavy recent rains.
MAIZE AND SOYA BEAN PRODUCTION
The rains have also affected this season’s grain production with only 200ha planted to maize and soya beans. “This is the first time I’ve planted less than 76ha to soya beans and only 120ha to maize,” she says.
Loretta says although she’s planted a smaller area, she is hoping for a good harvest because of the higher-than-average rainfall. Her maize yields have fluctuated between 4t/ha and 7t/ha in past seasons, and she hopes for yields of at least 6t/ha this season.
The maize is sold to Senwes and Afgri Silos, with a portion kept back for on-farm use in animal feed. “We buy concentrates and mix our own sheep and cattle feed,” she says.
Engaged in continuous learning, Loretta says access to training and short courses in agriculture helps her improve her skills. Over the years, she has done courses in farm management, livestock production, maize production and broiler production.
“Training teaches you how to handle a challenge. To some extent you can rely on knowledge and experience passed down through the generations, but training is incredibly valuable,” she says.