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January 2020

Louise Kunz, Pula Imvula contributor. Send an email to louise@infoworks.biz  

The Grain SA Western Cape office in Paarl opened in 2012. This office provides services to farmers stretching from the Swartland, Overberg and down towards the Southern Cape regions. This office celebrated a big blessing at the Day of Celebration this year when Andries van der Poll was announced as the 2019 Grain SA/Absa/John Deere Financial New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year. 

Two candidates from this area were entered for the New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year category this year and both were selected as finalists. According to the provincial co-ordinator in the area, Liana Stroebel, these two business minded farmers, Alfreda Mars and Andries van der Poll, have grown with leaps and bounds over the last five years. ‘Farmers like these make our job easy because you only need to present an opportunity and they grab it and run with it.’ 

Liana studied Agricultural Management at NMMU at Saasveld in George, after which she did a bachelor’s degree in International Livestock Production in the Netherlands and finally obtained a master’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of the Free-State. ‘Since I can remember, I have always loved animals, being outdoors and getting my hands dirty. Studying agriculture was the only natural choice for me. Through my studies and working on various farms in between, my respect for nature, sustainable farming systems and the plight and needs of the farmer was realised.’

She joined Grain SA in 2013 and has never looked back. Initially, her tasks focussed mainly on information transfer through study group meetings, farmer training courses and the Pula Imvula magazine. Over the years, as the farmers evolved, their needs changed and with that, the type of support needed. Various new add-ons and initiatives have been introduced such asassisting farmers with business plans, helping them to apply for funding and providing farmers with industry exposure by organising visits to local commercial farmers, farmers days and commercial farmer study groups.

As the majority of Grain SA farmers in the Western Cape farm with winter grains that require more hectares to be profitable, most of these farmers fall within the advanced farmer category. Liana is therefore not involved in these farmers’ operations as a mentor, but oversees 24 farming entities. Some of these entities consist of single farmers where others consist of larger groups such as cooperatives, trusts or equity scheme projects. 

In her capacity as co-ordinator she has to identify the farmers’ needs and work towards addressing it as quickly and efficiently as possible – whether it is challenges with input suppliers, equipment, record keeping, marketing, labour, diversification, conservation agriculture or funding.

Farm visits vary from planning meetings to checking crop progress and identifying challenges. It can also entail meetings with the farmers and other commodity representatives regarding streamlining their sheep or livestock enterprises to effectively slot in with their grain production systems, or planning meetings with mentors and sometimes even taking a mediation role when there are challenges among group members.

To Liana working as a provincial co-ordinator is an extremely satisfying job. ‘It is just amazing to witness how individuals grow and develop over time. At the end of the day, we can only create a platform and present opportunities but it is up to the farmers what they do with that opportunity.’ 

She shares that one of the most important things she has learnt over the years is that everyone grows at their own pace. No two individuals, two regions, two farms or even two camps on the same farm are similar. ‘Many institutions tend to want to class or categorise farmers into bulky boxes and support is too often generalised. Our farmers need tailor made support to suit their needs and particular situation’.

Liana feels strongly about the importance of the Grain SA mentorship programme and the role mentors play in improving the skills of the mentees. ‘Everyone needs a mentor – even the largest most successful commercial farmers also have mentors (in most cases even more than one) to guide and assist them. Surround yourself with people that know more than you do.’

To her a mentor is a person with very good practical farming knowledge and experience who knows the industry and its local role-players well. It is someone who can identify what knowledge or qualities a farmer needs to work on and is able to guide them towards that goal. 

A mentor should therefore truly understand the farmer’s background, available resources and personality and have the time and patience to teach someone. They should be able to commend the mentee’s strong points and help them work on improving their weak points. ‘It is also important that a mentor is resourceful and able to make plans in challenging conditions.’

Liana is passionate about agriculture and says farming is the most important job in the world. She shares this quote by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States: Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.

Publication: January 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula