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The Corner Post

September 2020

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

A British philanthropist from the 19th century, John Ruskin, believed that the highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it. André (or Chooks as he is better known) Louwrens from the Eastern Cape experienced this in his first season as a mentor.

Not only did mentoring farmers who were part of Grain SA’s mentorship programme change his attitude about fellow South Africans, but he also witnessed a change in most of his farmers.

Chooks and Luke Collier, Grain SA Development Coordinator in Kokstad, became friends when they worked together on a farm in the Eastern Cape. When Luke became involved in the mentorship programme, he brought Chooks on board because of his vast farming knowledge and fluency in Xhosa.

Chooks grew up on a farm in the area. Unfortunately, when he was still young, his dad lost the farm. However, with farming running in his veins he eventually managed to buy a farm with his brother in 1996.  After buying out his brother, he decided to lease the farm out as this entrepreneur first tried other ventures before settling down – after a long detour – where he belongs.

Currently he has a mixed farming operation where he cultivates 120 ha of maize, 30 ha of cabbage, 30 ha of wheat and 20 ha of potatoes and also owns some livestock. He also imports cabbage bags, which he sells to local cabbage farmers. ‘In this way I don’t over-pressurise the farm. It would definitely have made things easier to have inherited the farm.’

In his first season as mentor, a group of 155 farmers was assigned to Chooks. To him five of these farmers really have great potential to become successful commercial farmers. He is still in close contact with some of them and even shared some of his seed potatoes with one of the farmers in the Mount Frere area. ‘He often contacts me to proudly share how well they are growing. Unfortunately, the farmers often buy inferior products at the co-op which delivers poor quality produce.’

Chooks hopes that there will be funding for Grain SA to continue with this programme. ‘In our area the Grain SA farmers were getting much better yields than other farmers,’ he says. He believes it is because the inputs provided through the programme are superior. To him, apart from correct agricultural practices, input is the most important thing for a better yield. ‘What you use, makes a difference. It’s a case of rubbish in, rubbish out.’ On average the group under his mentorship improved their yields from 3 t/ha to nearly 7 t/ha. A female farmer in the area even managed a yield of 9 t/ha. ‘She was desperate to improve her yield, so I suggested that she buys two bags of urea which she did. She then pain-stackingly spoonfed the plants, one teaspoon at a time.’ This just shows that a bit of extra work goes a long way. Not only did her hard work give her a high yield but gave her confidence a boost.

One of the stumbling blocks Chooks discovered amongst his group of farmers was that they are easily influenced. ‘It is always to their disadvantage,’ he says and adds, ‘As I said, the inputs, chemical and mechanisation Grain SA provides is of a high standard. Unfortunately, they are often approached by agencies/companies with inferior products who convince them that their product is the better one.’

Once the farmers see the repercussions of using a cheaper, inferior product, it is too late to change it. ‘By making mistakes they learn that three bags of 22% fertiliser is not three bags of 40% fertiliser!’ They say that good decisions come from experience, but experience comes from bad decisions. Although the outcome was unpleasant, it was a valuable life lesson that you have to spend money to make money.

Another problem he identified was that some of the contractors give the farmers bad advice as it will simplify their job. ‘The biggest one was that the farmers should burn the stover which of course causes soil problems.’ Selling and pricing are also areas that are problematic. ‘I discovered that people who say they are helping them are often deceiving them.’

One of the inspiring things that the author of the world bestseller, The 7 habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey, said, is that most people spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.

Chooks admits that he usually makes decisions from a financial point of view, but that his outlook has changed through his involvement in the mentorship programme. By the end of his mentoring term, he found it very humbling to discover that a person can make a life changing impact on others in such a short time. ‘It is strange to think that relationships can form in such a short time. Many of the farmers still keep in contact. It is almost a teacher student relationship with especially the older farmers who are desperate to learn and improve their farming skills.’

Publication: September 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula