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April 2020

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

Clarence Day, an American author and cartoonist, said that ants are good citizens as they place group interests first. These tiny creatures work together and prove that teamwork is really at the heart of great achievement. To Timon filter from Piet Retief, cooperation and teamwork is what makes the difference between surviving and thriving. 

Timon was raised in a farming community and although his family was involved in the timber industry, he knows and loves agriculture as he had a lot to do with farming through missionary work. 

He was approached by Jurie Mentz, provincial co-ordinator at Grain SA, in 2017 and invited to become part of the mentorship programme as an opportunity had arisen in that area. ‘When Jurie asked me to mentor two study groups I was unsure if I was qualified, but as soon as I heard what Grain SA’s vision was with the mentorship programme – to empower emerging farmers to sustainable self-supporting commercial production – I was on board.’ 

This vision was in line with Timon’s calling – his ancestors relocated from Germany to bring the gospel to the Zulu nation. He knew that trying to feed people spiritually when they had a physical hunger would not be effective. ‘We had to find a way to feed people physically and spiritually.’ It was important to help find a way to eat from the land on which they were living. ‘We discovered that maize gardens were the way to go.’ Becoming part of this programme helped develop his passion. 

He and his wife, Margi, have now embarked on the quest of self-sufficiency. They currently reside on a small plot about 30 ha outside of Piet Retief where they provide for their daily needs with food created by their own land and animals. ‘We decided to practise what we preach – you can’t tell people to live off the land and then buy what you need!’

Initially Timon worked with 165 farmers divided in to two study groups in the Piet Retief/Pongola region. In his second season as mentor, the groups were divided into four, but due to a lack of finance only 86 of the farmers could continue. ‘Those that continued realised that with this programme they had to take responsibility for their own piece of land otherwise there would be no harvest’. 

To Timon the most important quality a mentor needs apart from knowledge and passion for agriculture, is a passion for people. ‘If you do not love the people, you won’t succeed, and you will not care whether or not they succeed.’ He mentions that one of the biggest challenges in this area is the conflict amongst the people which can easily make you despondent. ‘If you are passionate about agriculture and the people, you will learn to look past this and focus on the goal.’ 

There is an old Swahili proverb that says: ‘A boat doesn’t go forward if everyone is rowing their own way.’ Timon realised that for the programme (and the farmers) to succeed he would have to figure out a way to make them ‘row together’. He tried to explain to them that if they work together they could share costs. ‘I tried to get the groups to see that if they cooperated they could buy equipment together to share and become more independent. When you farm on such a small scale you cannot buy your own tractor and implements.’ 

In the second season he already saw a vast improvement in the cooperation amongst the study group members. He is therefore really sad that the Jobs Fund funding had not been granted for the new season as great strides have already been made in improving cooperation and agricultural skills. There were 129 farmers who were ready to enroll. 

He thoroughly enjoyed the personal visits to see first-hand how the harvest is growing. When there were problems or disaster struck he tried to encourage them, but was usually the one inspired. ‘A farmer needs faith otherwise he will not even put the seed in the ground, but it was amazing to see their resilience and how easily they bounce back from adversity, believing the next season will be better.’ 

One of his highlights was being accompanied to a hut filled with maize where previously only a few bags had been harvested. ‘I won’t easily forget their enthusiasm about the fact that they not only had enough to eat for a whole year but could also sell some of it to have money for the next season’s fee.’

Timon’s involvement in the programme was however not limited to mentoring as he was also employed as a trainer and has already presented eight different courses. 

As a trainer he has to make sure that subsistence farmers realise their potential through the development of their knowledge and skills. ‘The dream is to get them to develop from smallholder farmers into commercial farmers.’ In training the basics of maize production is covered – the A to Z of how maize grows. and what the best conditions for growth are. ‘It is important that they know how the plant grows and that it needs food and water for optimal growth.’ Aspects like the importance of soil profiles and the nutritional value of the soil is also covered. 

‘Through the course, farming for profit, farmers should realise that planting maize should not just be for survival. Even if they farm on 1 ha, it is still a business.’ Some of the other important courses look at dry beans, administration and mechanisation – tractor and farm implement maintenance. 

Timon will now focus on the training part of Grain SA’s Farmer Development Programme to ensure that skills and knowledge continue to develop. He hopes that the younger generation will become more interested in agriculture to ensure that this industry thrives.

Publication: April 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula