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December 2020

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

After travelling more than 1 million kilometres to do farm visits in the free state, Johan Kriel, former development coordinator of the Grain SA farmer development programme, hung up his boots at the end of September this year. 

At a low point in his life after having to sell their family farm in the Clocolan area where they grew crops, asparagus and also had livestock and a dairy, he joined Grain SA on 14 July 2006. Although farming will always remain his first career choice, he says that this position changed his life. ‘I spent my days making a difference in people’s lives and it was wonderful. It transformed from being just a job to my passion.’ 

Johan once described a mentor as follows: ‘A mentor is a father, a grandfather, a shoulder to cry on’. Ntate Kriel or ‘oom’ Kriel as he is fondly called by his mentees, was however much more than this. As mentor he became a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and someone who would push his mentees in the right direction so that they could reach their potential.

When Johan was born, he was given the Sotho name, Moeketsi, which means to ‘add on’, as he was the second born. In his time as development coordinator he has definitely added on by bringing hope to beginner farmers and helping them believe in themselves. He has helped build relationships between developing farmers and commercial producers, and he has ensured that agriculture profits.

He is especially pleased that his time as development coordinator gave him the wonderful opportunity to get to know the Free State. ‘I don’t think there is a town in the province where maize is produced which I did not visit since I started in 2006.’ He can’t recall how many farms he visited, but wherever he went, he encountered kindness, acceptance and incredible support from the beginner farmers. ‘It has been an amazing experience.’ 

Although there are only 350 farmers who are now actively part of the programme in the Free State, Johan has approximately 1 500 names on his database. Many of these farmers were not part of the programme, but joined the study group sessions as a result of a radio programme on Lesedi FM. It was Ntate Johan’s voice that gave advice for six years that inspired them. ‘This programme, which was broadcast at 20:20 on Thursday evenings, attracted many interested parties who did not have land, but wanted to see if farming could be their future.’ 

To Johan, who always looks ‘cool, calm and collected’, the most difficult part of being involved with beginner farmers was that he became emotionally involved in their lives. ‘I feel heart-broken when one of my farmers pass away.’ However, it is also this attribute that contributed to many of the farmers being there to offer their support when he himself lost loved ones. When his father passed away farmers even came from Edenville and Vredefort to sympathise.

His time as development coordinator is full of highlights. At the top of the list is witnessing two second generation farmers take over their father’s farming operations. ‘To begin mentoring a farmer with very little knowledge about farming, and ending this mentoring with a next generation farmer taking over this farming operation from his father, is indescribable,’ he shares with fatherly pride.

One of these success stories is William Matasane who farms in the Senekal district. He was one of the first farmers Johan took on board. This former waiter was crowned the Grain SA Emerging Farmer of the year winner in 2010. ‘His son, Johannes, has helped his father on the farm from an early age. He has now completed his B.Agric studies and will join his father on the farm.’

The other is Koos Mthimkulu (also from Senekal) who won the award in 2011. Koos’s son, Clifford, took over the farming operation about six years ago and is now a finalist in the farmer of the year competition. 

Another highlight has been seeing growth in a farming operation, and the consequent growth in the farmer. In the Tweespruit region Frans Makoena began his farming days on just 58 ha in 2000. Johan is thrilled to have been part of this operation and shares in Frans’s excitement of planting nearly 1 500 ha this season.

It was also wonderful to walk into a study group and to find within two or three sessions that I had won the trust of these farmers. On the other hand it has been humbling to see how anxious they are to learn more in order to improve or to get their farming operations going. This in spite of immense problems like not being able to get title deeds, not having access to production credit and not having any form of mechanisation on the farm.’ 

The relationships that formed are also on his highlights list as are life-changing farming moments. One of these is of a farmer whose pivot system hadn’t worked for 18 years. ‘When we eventually managed to get it going, he jumped off the tractor and ran and stood under the irrigation water because he was so happy.’ Sadly this farmer passed away after only seeing his irrigation system in action for three seasons.

‘Please remember that agriculture and the production of food is of the utmost importance – not only in South Africa, but worldwide. Agriculture can solve many problems in the country – unemployment, food security and racial tension. It is hard work – persevere during the good and the difficult times, and you will be successful. 

‘A big thank you to every farmer for your support and positive attitude throughout the years. Tsamaya ka kgotso!’

Publication: December 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula