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September 2019

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

The world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing which occurred on 20 July 1969. Although discovering the secrets of an unknown destination wasn’t always an easy undertaking, technology has made it easy to explore the world with the click of a mouse. Henry Miller, American author said: ‘one’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.’ 

So, the mentors and mentees who participate in the Grain SA mentorship programme do not have to leave the country to see a new destination as this programme offers them a unique journey of discovery. 

Gareth Alcock falls under the Dundee office, but functions as mentor in the Estcourt and Bergville areas. He currently resides on the outskirts of Estcourt, where he has been growing vegetables under irrigation for the past three years, while his wife runs a free range chicken operation. 

He grew up in a farming family in the Underberg region and says he gained all his farming knowledge from his dad. ‘I used to tag along with him and participated in youth shows during the school holidays which I enjoyed a lot.’ After his studies, he worked as a farm manager which further broadened his agricultural knowledge. 

As personal growth is important to him, he decided to look for new opportunities, and heard via the grapevine about the Grain SA Mentorship Programme. Willie Kotzé, operations manager of the Farmer Development Programme, offered him more information. ‘I decided that as I have the agricultural experience and knowledge and am fluent in Isizulu, I should give it a go. I am really enjoying being part of this programme,’ Gareth shares. 

This is his fourth season as mentor and he has not just taught, but also learned a lot. ‘In the beginning I found it to be a steep learning curve, especially as far as minimum till practices were concerned as this was something new to me. On a more personal level, I moved from job to job quite a lot, until now. I used to consider myself a farmer, but have now discovered that I am perhaps more of a teacher as I am really enjoying the teaching aspect of the programme.’ 

To Gareth job satisfaction is important. ‘To see that you are making a difference to quite a few people’s lives is what keeps me going.’ He has also seen a different mindset in the rural areas with negativity not being as prominent here as in other circles. ‘To them, life is carrying on. Things aren’t so bad; the country is not falling to pieces.’

He tries to see his 160 farmers at least once a month for individual visitations at their home or in the field. The group of farmers under his guidance have been divided into four study groups. Unfortunately there is never 100% attendance at the weekly morning meetings, so the one-on-one visits ensure that farmers are kept up to speed with what needs to be done.

The three areas where the programme has really had an impact in this area, are:

  • Minimum tillage. ‘At the onset of the programme, this was really a big paradigm shift for them to realise that you can plant without ploughing. Ploughing is a major expense for them, so the farmers are blown away that they can achieve higher yields without tilling.’ 
  • Planting date. ‘These farmers used to plant on a specific date, without taking into consideration that things are different year to year.’ After witnessing the results, they now know that they can no longer do the same thing at the same time every year – that circumstances and the variety planted makes a difference to the planting date and that every year is different. 
  • Plant population. 

They have also realised that by using better quality inputs and the correct quantities, they can quadruple their yield. With good rains the past season the high yield achieved in this area triggered a lack of storage.

Gareth is also working hard at changing the farmers’ perspective about the programme. ‘Most see it as a food security project. I try to explain that it is about growing them through better agricultural practices to expand their business.’ Although higher yields are exciting, the one area where growth has been slow, is farmers expanding their farming operations by increasing their hectares. ‘The majority of farmers stick to their 1 ha. I would love to see that they have a desire to get more land and grow their businesses.’

One area which remains a huge stumbling block is the farmers farming in the communal environment. ‘With livestock being brought back for communal grazing on the 1st of June, maize has to be removed whether it is dry or not or they will lose their crop.’ It is also not possible for farmers to combine their maize plots instead of harvesting by hand on communal land. 

To Gareth stand out moments during his time as mentor all revolve around an increase in yield. Seeing farmers, who never thought they could produce more than 1 t/ha or 2 t/ha, producing up to 8 t/ha – sometimes more than commercial farmers in the area – makes being a mentor meaningful. ‘It is wonderful seeing people’s perception change and believing in what they do.’

Publication: September 2019

Section: Pula/Imvula