A group of nine smallholder farmers from the North West province recently completed practical, hands-on training on potato production. A joint venture between the Agricultural Research Council and the provincial department of agriculture, the programme hopes to help alleviate poverty and joblessness by growing more potatoes. Peter Mashala visited the project.
The main aim of the project is simple – make more farmers in the deep rural areas of the province part of mainstream potato production. According to the province’s MEC of Agriculture, Desbo Mohono,the project, bankrolled by the North West Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, is part of her department’s Food Security Strategic Plan (FSSP).
Mohono says by supporting farmers and their production, the province addresses the FSSP’s main pillars – generating income and creating jobs, increasing the number of productive farmers, and expanding agricultural production in the province.
Nine farmers from across the province’s four district municipalities were part of the initiative. Desbo says statistics for the North West Province show the number of agricultural households in the province is currently below the national average of 13.8%. In addition, only 64.0% of the population has adequate access to food with 24.4% having inadequate access and 11.6% having severe inadequate access to food.
“Our province has the highest number of people with inadequate access to food and the third highest number of people suffering from hunger in the country.”
Desbo believes potato farming has the potential to address the issue. She says her department embarked on the initiative with the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) with the aim of upskilling potential entrants to the potato industry.
“The high inputs costs should not deter our farmers to forge ahead because once in, rewards are great,” explains Desbo. Project manager, Dr Lerato Matsaunyane, plant-breeding specialist at the ARC, says the initiative started in 2020, following a successful potato demonstration trial done by the ARC at Kgora Farmers Training Centre outside Mahikeng. An estimated 62% of potato production is in Limpopo, Western and Eastern Free State, and the Sandveld, with the North West province trailing far behind.
Following the successful trial that showed it was feasible to grow potatoes commercially in the North West Province, Lerato, who is also from the province, approached the MEC to lobby her to support another trial.
“But this time, we wanted to do it with different farmers in the province who were interested in commercial production of potatoes,” explains Lerato. She says when the MEC bought into the idea, they approached 11
farmers who had land with the potential to grow potatoes.
These farmers were from all four districts of the province. The areas were Jan Kempdorp, Potchefstroom, Sannieshof, Tlapeng, Ramatlabama, Burhmansdrif, Lichtenburg, Brits, and Rustenburg, and each farmer produced one hectare fully funded by the department.
“The demographics included four women and five men, with one of the women categorised as youth,” says Lerato. Because growing potatoes is so expensive, farmers need to be properly trained, according to Lerato.
The project started by providing a week-long theoretical training at the Kgora Centre, which included modules such as Introduction to Potato Production; Holistic Approach to Production; Equipment Selection and Handling; Planting Material; Handling of Plant Material; Hygiene Standards; and Understanding Potato Varieties.
The participants were also taught about the different characteristics of potato varieties, classifying varieties, as well as their various uses.
“In class, we also focused on how different environmental conditions affect the growth of potatoes and how to choose sites for planting. We also trained the farmers on the importance of soil preparation, crop rotation, planting times, methods, and spacing,” says Lerato. She says the non-commitment of two farmers saw them drop out.
“We were left with only nine participants at the time planting commenced. The department make seed potatoes available, as well as fertilisers and chemicals,” she explains. After completing the theoretical training, the training moved to individual farms for the duration of the production season.
Due to high rainfall, planting started a little late. The first farmers started planting on 17 January 2022 with the last one planting as late as 21 February in the Rustenburg area. The seed potatoes used were the Lanorma cultivar bought from GWK. It is a medium- early table variety suitable for all soil types. All nine farmers planted on dry land. Mosidi Morule, one of the participants in Ramatlabama outside Mahikeng, says she planted on 22 January and managed to get a yield of 33t/ha.
“The expectation was anything up to 10 t/ha. However, we managed to surpass the target even on the sandy soil type I have on this farm,” explains Mosidi.
She says at first, she was sceptical about the whole thing because of the challenges they initially faced in the project.
“We had too much rain in the beginning and had issues with the tractor breaking down all the time. Under the guidance and mentorship of Dr Lerato Matsaunyane and Dr Flip Steyn, we managed to break through these barriers and had amazing results,” says Mosidi.
She says her plan now is to grow gradually into a commercial potato farmer. She is currently preparing to plant her next crop starting in September on 2.5ha. “Although we first ran the trial on dry land, I’m planning the next crop under irrigation,” says Mosidi. She explains that there are boreholes on the farm, but her main challenge would be irrigation infrastructure.
“We were lucky because we had lots of rain in the past year, but there is no guarantee that we’ll have good rainy seasons going forward. The plan is to use the proceeds of this harvest to try to put up an irrigation system,” Mosidi explains. She hopes that the department will sponsor them again with some inputs, such as seed potatoes, fertiliser and pesticides.
Another farmer, Mthuthuzeli Latha from Jan Kempdorp in the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme, says the project came at the right time when he was planning to diversify and add cash crops to his livestock and grain operation. Mthuthuzeli says the trials made it easy for him to decide to diversify with potatoes.
“I never expected to perform so well on my first try, but because I had a good support system and committed mentors, I managed to surpass expectations,” he says. He says the role the department and the ARC played in evertything was enormous in opening farmers’ eyes to the possibilities and opportunities potato farming can bring to them as farmers.
“What was clear from these trials is that because of its labour intensiveness, econo mically, potato farming would contribute immensely towards job creation, something the province really needs,” says Mthuthuzeli.
He explains that commercialising and increasing productivity would improve liveli hoods and generate income in small towns and rural areas, as well as the empowerment of traders in the informal sector. Mthuthuzeli further states that the project also opened their eyes to what the role of the ARC was, and to what extent smallholder farmers can benefit from it.
“Projects such as these bring these institutions to the people and ensure that their role is known and felt on the ground,” he says.
“By empowering these farmers through such programmes, they could adopt a commercial mindset that can unlock a powerhouse of rural development and food security in the province,” says Lerato. She explains that the primary potato sector is valued at R8 billion and the secondary sector at R25 billion.
“The commercial potato sector is well established, however black potato farmers contribute less than 1% of the total production in the country,” Lerato explains. She says the initiative not only trains farmers but is contributing towards sufficient food pro duction and sustainable job creation.
She says in South Africa, potatoes are mostly produced by a small number of large commercial farmers, whereas in the rest of the world potatoes are mainly produced by smallholder farmers.
“It is therefore viable to grow potatoes on a smaller scale and still make a commercial success. So it is important for the province to help increase the number of hectares planted to potatoes by smallolder farmers, as this can significantly contribute to job creation and food security in the province,” she explains.
Lerato adds that plans are in place to support farmers that have just been trained and to train more farmers in the future.