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‘Work like a slave, live like a king’

August 2022


‘Agriculture may not be easy, but it certainly is interesting,’ says Phutheho Tsephe (33) about his journey as a farmer. This young father of two farms with his father, Thabang Tsephe (61), near Matatiele in the Eastern Cape.

Like many other young people who consider farming as menial and hard work, Phutheho had no desire to farm. After completing his schooling, he studied information technology at PC Training and Business College in Durban. ‘Even though I grew up on a farm, I was not interested in farming. When my brothers were no longer on the farm to help my father, I had to go and assist him.’ This is where his career path and life changed. He says that after a while he realised that farming was the thing that would lead to a better life for him and his family. ‘I had to leave what I loved to get what really needed.’

Phutheho realised that to be a successful farmer he would have to learn continually and improve his knowledge about agriculture. Afterjoining Thabang on the farm in 2013, he completed a course in livestock and vegetable production at Buhle Farmer’s Academy in Delmas, Mpumalanga. They form part of Grain SA’s new era farmer group and are also members of the 500 Ton Club.

At first father and son focused on dairy and beef production and also had a piggery on their 500-hectare farm, Mariazell Farm. In 2020 they moved to a new 700-hectare farm, Bon-Accord, in the same region where they run a mixed farming operation. They have continued with their dairy operation and livestock farming but have added crops to the menu. 

Initially they planted 50 hectares of maize, but have increased it to 75 hectares for this season. Last season they realised 8 t/ha. This season was less favourable with heavy rainfall making the process problematic and waterlogged fields made it difficult to do post emergent weed control. ‘Even though this season was not as favourable, we are hoping for the best as far as our maize is concerned,’ says Phutheho who is still positive that they will realise a yield of 6 t/ha.

Thabang and Phutheho share the farming responsibilities equally. ‘Although we don’t really have enough land to accommodate both of us, we are working well together,’ Phutheho says about their teamwork. ‘The one thing I have learned from my dad is that if you work like a slave, you can live like a king,’ Phutheho adds with a smile. As finances allow, they will slowly build their farming enterprise and are hopeful to expand their maize production in the future.

Thabang motivated Phutheho to become a Grain SA member in 2018 when he also became part of the Farmer Development Programme. They are supported by Luke Collier, the regional development manager who is based at the Kokstad regional office, and mentor Eric Wigglle who mentors Phutheho. ‘Grain SA plays an important role in our farming operation,’ says Phutheho. ‘They help us with inputs and mechanisation and thanks to their support we are able to rectify our mistakes in time.’ 

Thabang and Phutheho have done quite a few of the training courses presented by the Grain SA team like farming for profit, business ethics and business management. Through the courses and mentorship Phutheho has seen a vast improvement in their farming operation, not just as far as crop production is concerned but in the dairy operation as well. With every visit or study group session their knowledge is increased which means better agricultural practices and a better product on the field. ‘Training definitely makes farming easier,’ he says.

The most important lesson Phutheho has learned over the years is how important timing is when it comes to agriculture. It is a lesson most farmers learn quickly. To be successful, having all the knowledge is not enough. It is the timing of each step that can make the difference between an excellent yield and just having some maize on the field. ‘Time is important on the farm, so a farmer has to work purposefully. If you miss a day or plant late it can have serious consequences. Through Grain SA I have learned that failing to plan, is planning to fail’. 

Phutheho hopes that people will start viewing agriculture differently. ‘Farming is the only business that will never ever vanish as people need food to survive. I really hope one day our government will see how important it is.’ He would like to see agriculture included in the school curriculum. ‘They should start teaching the kids at school about the value of farming to make it a more fashionable career choice.’ 

Although it was not his decision to farm, Phutheho has become passionate about farming. To him it is a humbling profession with no room for pride, only room for learning. ‘One season you can make money and the next you will only break even,’ he shares, but admits that this ‘roller-coaster ride’ is very exciting. He has developed so much because a farmer has to be a Jack of all trades. ‘You can’t always expect other people to do everything for you, so you have to learn to do everything yourself,’ he says about this career path that has helped him mature into a man like his father.

Publication: August 2022

Section: Pula/Imvula