Date interviewed 27 February 2019
Date newsletter posted 25 March 2019
Farmer Daniel Bunge
Farm name Ferndrift Farm
Mill Umzimkulu
Distance to the mill 30 kms
Area under cane 548 hectares (inc leases)
Annual quota 24 500 tonnes
Cutting cycle 20 – 24 months
Av Yield 80 tonnes per hectare
Av RV 12.8% with some random ripening
Varieties N12, N48, N41, N39, N52, 376, N31, N37, N55, N58
Soil type Predominantly TMS
Altitude 550-600m
Diversification 35 hectares Macs, 70 head Brangus Cattle, 15 hectares Tea Tree,   20 hectares Wattle, 50 hectares Gum.

Farmers certainly are a diverse bunch and Daniel is definitely the quietest I have met thus far. At first, his soft, gentle nature seems opposed to the harsh demands of agriculture but, once you sync to his style, it is easy to see how mild-mannered may be beneficial in many situations. So, settle quietly and enjoy a pleasant insight to this placid place.

Daniel, Jeanette, David and Jessica


The name Bunge means “drum” in German. Further research revealed that many Bunge’s emigrated to the USA, and that most of them were farmers. Daniel’s forefathers chose a more rugged destination and brought his family to Paddock, in 1884. Now there are many Bunge’s in Paddock and across the gorge, in Oribi, most of them still in farming.

Daniel is one of 3 children; his brother studied engineering but rejoined the family farming operation 2 years ago. He is fulfilling mechanical maintenance and management roles. This additional resource was necessary when a neighbouring farm was purchased in 2017 and had a further 217 hectares of sugar cane. Daniel’s sister lives in Hermannsburg, a predominantly German community not far from Noodsberg.

Dad Bunge is still involved in the farm but focuses mainly on the 70-strong Brangus herd that came with the new farm purchase.

Although Daniel did not gain a formal education after school, besides the SASRI Senior Certificate course, he did gain invaluable experience when he spent a year at a heavy plant dealership, where he learnt the art of welding and basic mechanics. This short time ‘in town’ also taught him that farming was the only thing he really wanted to do, so he wasted no further time getting back to it.


Daniel voices his concern about the sugar industry, saying that a 5000t farm used to be a financially viable size, then it became 8000t and so it has kept increasing. Nowadays, the viable size is excluding so many Small-Scale Growers. His concern for this sector is evident. We are all living the knock-on effects playing out daily. Even in my own small world of SugarBytes, I am realising the financial need to diversify and will gradually be supplementing the range of crops covered on this platform.

So, how has diversification been handled on this farm? Daniel explains that, for him, it has been challenging: they are so set up to be efficient cane farmers, with suitable equipment and resources, introducing a new crop requires investment … but, when the sugar price has been low for so long, capital is limited.


Extensive family involvement inevitably leads to healthy agricultural diversification and that began many years ago for the Bunges and a number of other local Paddock farmers. There used to be a tea plantation on the farm and a processing factory in Paddock. It was a substantial project, in which the government had also invested. With those investors, it was paradoxical that unmanageable minimum wage increases and the lack of import duties to protect the local industry eventually rendered the operation unsustainable and it shut down.  Seems like there’s a rerun of that movie in the sugar industry right now…


About 18 years ago 3,5 hectares of macs were planted with a further 4,5 hectares being added a few years later. Daniel confesses that he has not farmed them very well. Back then, the focus was always primarily on tea and cane so now, when he really needs their produce, they’re not delivering as they could. When cane proved unproductive in a field, macs were put in.

Now that the ridges have been built up, we can see exactly how shallow these soils are. Cane has not survived here.

The cane in between these macs has been abandoned as it is just not managing to survive the poor soils. Hopefully the macs will prove more resilient.

In the last three years, the previously ignored macs have enjoyed supplementary input, such as ridging up where soils are shallow, and some irrigation, as well as fertilisers and other necessary chemicals. Subsequent to these improvements, he’s doubled the yield to about 1,5 tonnes per hectare and hopes to see that improve further. There are now 35 hectares of macs, with another 5 planned for this year. The strategy was to cap this crop at 50 hectares but remains flexible.

Daniel has exercised his green fingers in grafting trees and it has been very successful. He used Beaumont root stock and Beaumont grafts. Just two weeks prior to my visit, he planted out a new orchard with the trees that had spent two years gaining strength in his nursery.

Daniel also has macs within prospering cane fields. He humbly admits that this probably wasn’t the best plan he could have come up with but, when his uncle couldn’t take 15 hectares of macs he’d ordered, Daniel couldn’t turn them down, even though he had nowhere to plant them. He decided to put them in with cane. Now, every year he takes out another row of cane on each side of the macs and hopes to have productive (and exclusive) mac orchards to replace the cane fields in about 3 years.

The obvious reality of fire risk adds to Daniel’s grey hair but we hope and pray that the trees survive this tumultuous time of their development. Daniel trashes this cane and uses the trash to mulch the organic tea tree and suppress weeds. His cutters are not happy campers as he has N52 (hairier than N31) in these fields. Weed control in this environment is also challenging; Daniel has to continually hand-hoe. But, the cane and macs are both doing well and the light at the end of the tunnel is shining brightly.

These 15-year-old mac trees were transplanted 3 years ago. They seem to have survived the ordeal well and Daniel looks forward to their produce.

Daniel does have one reservation about macs; their incredible chemical reliance. Recently he has had a few health issues and the doctor has suggested that chemical inhalation is responsible. Whether that’s true or not, it has intensified his concerns about what we are introducing to our environments by farming this crop extensively and, usually, so close to our homesteads … perhaps a point we should all be mindful about.

Essential Oils

While cane is draining (literally; Daniel hopes he doesn’t have to pay in again this year) and macs are so long-term, essential oils are energising Daniel’s spirit right now. It’s only his second year in tea tree and his first trialling Rosemary but the outlook is positive. He’s still in the learning phase – last year he only produced 100 litres per hectare from the tea tree because it was harvested 4 months too late. The half-hectare test patch he first did in 2017 yielded 300 litres per hectare. He hopes to settle with a yield of 200 litres per hectare and plans to expand up to 50 hectares. The concern, from all farmers, regarding tea tree and other essential oils is the size of the market; it seems to be unquantified and possibly quite small, given its susceptibility to relatively small supply changes.

Left: A Rosemary flower. Centre: Two hectares of Rosemary that Daniel has propagated himself. Right: The one-hectare trial he will harvest at the end of March.

As the crop does not require irrigation and can be harvested within a year of planting, it is certainly appealing but marketing it might be where the challenge comes in. Daniel has chosen to offer an organic product which has its own set of difficulties, but he is enjoying the new mindset and learning how to get the most from the soil without chemical support.

To achieve organic certification, there has to be a 10m wide, chemical-free passage around the tea tree. The pole above indicates that border and it is clear that the cane within the boundary is missing its supplements. 

The weed challenge in this 7-month-old field is evident but not crippling.

This year a mobile set-up will spend the month of March distilling Daniel’s harvest. It will be fuelled by these mac shells which is wonderful symbiosis between the crops …


Daniel is glad not to have anything to do with the four-legged stock on this farm; his Dad handles that.


Timber occupies the marginal, very rocky parts of Ferndrift. There are currently 20 hectares of wattle that will gradually give way to additional grazing. Daniel is unsure whether he will continue with the 50 hectares of gum but, due to the long growing cycle, he has time to decide.

Back to sugar …

A happy farmer and his good child – N12


Given the low returns on sugar and the expense of replanting, Daniel is only investing in new fields where absolutely necessary. The new farm that they bought in 2017 had young ratoons with no replanting requirements.

In preparation for new roots, Daniel tries to give the soil a break and some fresh organic matter by planting oats before winter. He says this is the best thing to kill off grasses, including Barbie! If the harvest has been too late, he’s going to try Sunhemp.

Standard procedure is to rip the fields, to aerate and alleviate compaction, and then disc them to break up the clods but when a strong plough came with the new farm, Daniel added that to the regime … he’ll probably revert to the earlier practice though as ploughing is not showing any benefit.

The hope with ploughing was to reduce chemical reliance (Glyphosate) in eradicating old stools, especially in fields that will be hosting organic crops. Daniel now runs the cultivator through those fields but it’s a slow operation and the high cost of equipment wear-and-tear is concerning.

This stool eradicator and chisel plough help reduce chemical reliance by removing old stools mechanically.

Once rested, the fields are disked and ridged in tram-lines. The cane is placed double-stick and cut in the furrows. A tractor-drawn implement applies fungicide, closes and compacts in one pass.

Daniel hopes his brother can improve the functionality of this closing implement as, currently, it does not compact effectively, although it has halved his labour requirement for planting.

Daniel is planning to establish seed beds in anticipation of the new rule concerning exclusively certified seedcane.


N12 is the predominant variety and Daniel’s go-to when in doubt, in fact he’ll be using it a lot more in the coming season to steady the rocky ship brought on by the unstable financial environment. There has also been substantial use of N39, but it has been prone to rust which has probably affected its development and has cost a lot of money to control. Despite having a two-year growing cycle, it also tends to start losing a lot of weight after 20 months; this phenomenon began at about 4 ratoons but even the younger fields are now showing signs.  N29 was also a poor variety, for similar reasons.

Besides that, Daniel has spread his eggs into many baskets. One that is showing more promise than others is N52 which he is using to replace N31 where possible. It can be cut at 18 months and is showing great results.

This young field of N58 shows the tramlines well.


Soil samples are submitted for analysis after every 3rd ratoon and usually always indicate that the soils are too acidic. A pattern of supplementing at least 4t/h of lime and about 3t/h of gypsum had developed but is now being temporarily suspended due to financial constraints and the fact that gypsum is no longer available locally.

Farming tea tree organically is helping him to think about how to get nutrients into the soil without chemicals and he hopes he will be able to extend this practice across more of the farm. For now though, his practices are fairly standard; 2:3:4 (39%), hand applied at a rate of about 250kgs/hectare, in the furrow when planting. He chooses to apply by hand when planting because the overall gradient of the farm tends to push the mechanical ridger/ applicator off track. It necessitated a person to monitor the accuracy and he therefore decided to rather just use one person to apply by hand.

Subsequent applications are liquid CMS. Daniel’s been doing this for the last 14 years and is happy with the results. Two advantages of tram-line fields (which have slightly wider inter-row spaces) are realised in fertiliser application: 1. the tractors do not damage ratoons as much, 2. Delayed applications are possible as rows are discernible for longer.

Applications are split; winter fields are treated right behind the cutters, with slightly higher potassium (Daniel advises that this is important for RV levels). The second application is in Spring. Plant fields, and late season fields, only get the second application. The recipe is usually 110 to 120kg/hectare nitrogen, 180 to 220kg/hectare potassium and about 20kg/hectare phosphorous.

A lime and gysum spreader that Daniel admits is over-spec’ed but it does reduce the task down to a couple of weeks per year.


Timing is everything. If I had a dollar (okay, maybe $1000) for every time a farmer has said this, I’d be rich BUT, apparently there are many farmers who have not yet realised that the number one factor in weed management is timing. Daniel, himself a top farmer, learnt this the hard way last Christmas when festivities took his eye off the ball. A mere 8 weeks after applying the short-term herbicides, his Induna phoned to say that there was a HUGE problem; the weeds had gotten out of control and hand hoeing would be necessary to reclaim the cane. Generally he tries to avoid hand weeding, particularly in ratoon cane. Mac X cane fields are another story and hand-weeding is used extensively in this environment.

Daniel has found success in mixing an additive with the herbicide that changes the droplet size and enhances cling-ability of the chemical. It not only enhances efficacy but also permits spraying on slightly windier days.

A larger spray tank has added to herbicide application efficiencies.


In 2000 Daniel’s family bought a marginal farm that came with some of the worst Eldana he’s ever seen. It was predominantly N12 with average yields of 50t/h. In addressing the issue, he planted varieties with shorter growing cycles (N52 and N31) and cut them early. In doing this, he reduced the need to spray and increased yield to 75t/h.

Aerial applications in hilly landscapes are always challenging and Daniel is going to be trying a helicopter service to see if accuracy improves. He will also be investigating planting BT maize as a rest crop; a neighbour, who is averse to chemical treatments, has been doing this and is happy with the results.

Daniel also battles Rust, particularly in N39. He has sprayed before and admits that the cane LOOKS better afterwards but remains unconvinced that the excercise had any yield benefit.


I share Daniel’s views on the stress of burning – he’d far prefer to trash but, unfortunately, he says it just isn’t an option in this cold climate. As mentioned, he does it for the Mac X cane fields which then necessitates trash management, adding to the labour bill.

Ferndrift’s Fire Truck

Daniel prefers cold burns so there are some tops left to supplement the organic content of the soil. He is present at every burn and opts to burn before dawn.

Daniel would love to have a mechanical harvester one day – and when I saw these beautiful big, flat fields, I could envisage one there too.

Cutters place 8 rows into one windrow and top on the ground. Daniel says that it was a draining exercise getting the cutters to understand that 6 rows of untrammed lines = 8 trammed lines. Besides fire, labour is his second biggest stress.

Early in the season, he instructs cutters to remove more of the top in order to maximise RV%. Later in the season, or in a chemically ripened field, they will leave less top because more of the stick has now ripened. Daniel has a mechanical refractometer to check the purity of cane but finds that experience and intuition is just as valuable; he was planning to ripen the N39 this year because he it tends to deteriorate early and he therefore opens the season with it. But, when he went out take a closer look, he found that the top nodes were short and the cane was already showing clear signs of being ripe. No need for a tool to make the call against chemical ripening.

If anyone else out there has made a change from Fusilade to Moddus and been disappointed, you’re not alone. Daniel burnt his fingers last season by using the dearer product and realising unsatisfactory results.

Bell loaders serve to load either a 10 or 6 tonne trailer in-field which then tips the cane onto the nearest zone where another Bell hands it over to Paddock Transport, an operation in which the local farmers have shares. Becoming a part of this enterprise not only saved Daniel on transport costs, it has also given him equity value.

I just loved this old-looking (but strong and reliable) rig that is an essential part of Daniel’s harvesting operation.

Daniel is concerned about the effects of compaction on income but would love to see quantified results to fully understand the implications.


Jeanette does all the business’s book work and it keeps her busy as Daniel avoids office as much as he can. While I was there, I witnessed her unwavering support when she deftly handled a Dept of Agric visit (to assess the organic status of the tea tree) and allowed Daniel the time to focus on SugarBytes. They’re a remarkable team and her easy, musical laughter is a joy.


Daniel says he has no idea how guys farm without faith. God is his pivot, pillar and power; the centre of his success. Family and community are also vital and he’s very grateful that his family is able to work well together.

He also emphasises that ‘new stuff’ and innovation are integral to agricultural success.

A smile played on my face as I drove away from Ferndrift, not because I was leaving but because I had had the privilege of spending time with salt of the earth farmers; a young and wholesome family whose contribution to our world is valued. Thank you for your open, honest candour; for hosting me all day and, most of all, for your investment in the livelihoods of other farmers who will learn from your story.