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June 2019

Louise Kunz, Pula Imvula
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Rob Irons is a farmer from the Winterton area where he has a dairy and crop enterprise and cultivates maize, soya and wheat. He started his farming operation in 1979 and before that worked on a farm about 20 km from where he is currently farming. With 46 years of farming experience behind him, he has a vast knowledge about farming, but says he learns something every day from various farmers. It is said that experience is the teacher of all things, which probably makes Rob an ideal mentor. 

This is Rob’s third season as mentor and 212 mentees form part of his seven study groups this year. Of these, 80% are women who are growing in confidence as their knowledge of agriculture increases. In the Emmaus area, which ranges from Winterton to Cathedral Peak, he has three different groups which all form part of one main group, totalling 120 mentees. In the Loskop area he mentors four more groups and has monthly meetings with each group with individual visits between group sessions. 

Previously these families went to bed hungry if their crop failed. The mentorship programme has had an enormous impact on their lives and most of the participants in the programme have managed to at least double their yield since starting the programme, which meant more money and improved lives.

Graeme Engelbrecht, Dundee Development Co-ordinator, had shared details about Grain SA’s mentorship programme with Rob. ‘He called on me a couple of times and told me what they wanted to achieve with the programme which stimulated my interest as I had previously done some development work with our farmers’ association.’

His decision was further influenced by visits to the area through his keen interest in bird watching. Travelling in the mountainous areas, he saw how underutilised the land was – high potential soil with above average rainfall was not being used. ‘I saw people living in absolute poverty and doing nothing to use the exceptional soil.’ He knew that this needed to change as crops could be grown there almost effortlessly.

When Rob’s son returned to the farm to join his dad, Rob decided to step back and give his son the opportunity to take over. ‘I think young people need their space and I didn’t want to tread on any toes, so I decided to take a step back.’ He therefore had extra time on his hands and decided to become involved in the programme as a mentor.

American business magnate Steve Jobs said, ‘If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed’. Mentoring has now become Rob’s ‘full time job’ with no one ‘pushing’ him to be involved. 

Through the programme he has also experienced personal growth. ‘When you see a previously poverty- stricken household no longer going to bed hungry, you have to change’. He shares that he has gained a large amount of satisfaction from seeing the growth of the mentees and has become more understanding, humble and patient. ‘I have also realised that we all face the same problems as farmers whether we are big commercial producers or subsistence farmers. We all have to deal with price fluctuations, the changing weather patterns, workers and theft.’

In this area farmers face huge challenges and livestock damage to the crops is one of the major problems in this area. ‘Farming on communal land is challenging,’ Rob says and explains that as the land belongs to the chief they are subject to his decisions. In these areas the cattle are kept in the mountains in the summer months. ‘When it gets colder the livestock is moved to lands where there is no fencing. If the farmers haven’t harvested yet, there will be nothing left, so they have to reap quite early – often before the crops are dry enough.’ 

So many of the farmers would also like to expand their enterprise, but as they lease land this is not possible. Often farmers cultivate the land for a season, but when the owner sees what is being achieved, the land is taken back, and they must start from scratch again on a different piece of land. 

The area makes transport and the use of mechanisation difficult. In the Emmaus area, 90% of crops are hand planted. Poor infrastructure and treacherous roads make transport challenging which in turn makes selling maize difficult. 

Although the mentorship programme cannot make a difference in these tricky circumstances, a lot is being done to tackle the situations that can be improved. Rob has been working hard to amend incorrect agricultural practices to improve their yield. Effective weed control is key. He is also trying to create a no till culture by not ploughing and hoeing. Recently he has also been attempting to get the farmers to think bigger and to establish the idea of commercial farming. ‘The farmers must start farming to thrive and not just to make enough to survive,’ he says. 

They get so excited once they sell their first maize and have more than enough left to feed the whole family for a year. The women especially enjoy the status of being providers in the community with their own money, who no longer have to beg for money from male figures. ‘It is incredible to see their sense of pride when they realise what they have achieved. You can actually see their confidence growing when they realise they are now the providers.’

This year Rob has a finalist in the category, Smallholder Farmer of the Year and is looking forward to the Day of Celebration in anticipation.

Publication: June 2019

Section: Pula/Imvula