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September 2021


Thobani Ntonga (41) did not consider farming as a career choice – he chose a career in finances and worked as a financial advisor in Cape Town. When he visited his family home in the eastern cape, farming reeled him in.

Farming is not seen as a glamorous job. There is no fixed monthly salary, no company pension or paid holidays and you are at the mercy of nature’s elements. So, why would someone with a promising corporate career give it all up to farm?

‘I never intended to be a farmer – I just fell in love with the lifestyle,’ he says about his passion for farming. He finds that there is so much positive feedback on a farm. ‘To get feedback from whatever you do, is so satisfying. If you give your crops the necessary fertiliser, you can see the results. If your livestock are fed properly, you witness their growth and it just makes you feel good.’ 

Not even the unpredictability of farming dampens his enthusiasm. ‘It is difficult having a career where you can follow all the rules and still end up having a bad crop as result of variable weather conditions or when your neighbours’ livestock get out and destroy your hard work.’ In times like these he just feeds on the satisfaction that farming gives him.

‘During a visit to my family, I saw an opportunity to start a farming operation. My dad who is a trader was buying produce in Kokstad which he then sold in the Cedarville area. I realised it was unnecessary to travel to buy something that we ourselves could plant as no-one in that area was growing vegetables.’ He started looking for a government farm and was fortunate to obtain a 181 ha farm, Hentiq with 64 ha of arable land – 50 ha under pivot irrigation. This made it possible for him to venture into crop farming, which would save his dad time and travelling expenses.

Thobani has been farming commercially since 2014 in their family operated enterprise, Loto Greens. His father has always been involved in agriculture through livestock speculation, planting maize and doing contract work for the government. Although he was only assisting his father at the onset of their farming operation, he is now the operating manager who ensures that their crops and livestock receive the necessary daily attention.

He is eager to improve his knowledge and skills and seizes any opportunity to gain more information. He therefore is a Grain SA member and regularly attends the study groups in the area. It is here where he crossed paths with Luke Collier, provincial coordinator of Grain SA’s Farmer Development Programme at the Kokstad office. Luke has been instrumental in Thobani’s development as a farmer. 

‘Through his mentorship, farm visits, advice and support I have gained a lot of confidence as a farmer.’ 

This father of three hopes that his two sons will share his passion as they have been exposed to agriculture from a young age. ‘I believe that the African youth can be motivated to engage in agriculture – whether it is farming or other careers in agriculture – through exposure from a young age. In the rural areas farming is done on a very small piece of land, mostly for own consumption. Commercial farming is something totally different.’

As Thobani wants to be a good steward of his land and farm sustainably, he tries to learn as much as he can about best agricultural practices from whatever source is available or just by trial and error. For example, he learned the value of timeous planting on his own farm the hard way. 

Although he started off well achieving 8 t/ha on dry land, only 6 t/ha was realised in their second season. ‘The years thereafter have been a bit of a disaster, achieving only 3 t/ha.’ The main reason for the drop in yield was late planting. ‘We have always had challenges, but a massive challenge has been outsourcing mechanisation. Issues with a funder also made access to funding problematic and we received our inputs late. All this led to late planting.’ 

He shares two valuable lessons with other farmers. 

  • Be prepared: ‘One of the shortfalls in my enterprise is that I go into a season “blind”. I am uncertain of inputs, all aspects of finance and who I will use for mechanisation. This leads to late planting. One of the biggest mistakes a crop farmer can make is planting outside the planting window period. If you plant late, you have already lost a huge part of your harvest.’
  • Be a hands-on farmer: ‘There is no excuse for not being on the farm. You need to monitor your crop and livestock daily because change is immediate. Farming can’t be done from a distance.’ 

Publication: September 2021

Section: Pula/Imvula