|Date interviewed||13 March 2019|
|Date newsletter posted||23 April 2019|
|Farmer||Johann Buhr (assisted by Farm manager, Danie van Eden)|
|Farm name||Waterfall Valley Estate (Crown Sugar Farming is the business)|
|Distance to the mill||30kms|
|Total farm size||690 hectares|
|Area under cane||375 hectares|
|Annual quota||13 300 last year to 15 000 tonnes next year|
|Cutting cycle||Ave 21,5 months|
|Av Yield||82 tonnes per hectare|
|Av RV||14,4% RV|
|Varieties||N50, N52, N51, N55, N58, N59, N63, N65, N68|
|Soil type||Sandy, loams|
|Altitude||600m above sea level|
|Diversification||Cattle, Timber (wattle & gum), Macs, Financial Planning|
Another fellow Wartburgian! Although I was a little ahead of Johann, my high school years did coincide with his older brother, Leon. And they were in the hostel too; being German, one would presume that they were local farmers (Wartburg is a predominantly German community) but they actually hail from Paddock, so my trusty Nikon and I headed down the South Coast to meet this dynamo.
Apart from the odd escaped, sweet-toothed bushpig, Lake Eland are great neighbours and the bustling metropolis of Port Shepstone is not far away either.
Sometimes a rich history outshines the present but this special family has both a wonderful, interesting past and a present that you just want to bottle, label “healthy”, and make a fortune from. Let’s start with the past …
Top left: Early crop-spraying. Middle top: A signed photo from a prisoner of war who helped build the house. It is presumed that it was him who made the special box in which the Buhrs found some of these old photos. Right: The first homestead, built in the 40’s. Below centre: a span of oxen.
On 2 March 1894 a young lady, Dorothea Buhr, and her two young sons arrived in South Africa, having travelled from Germany to London and onwards to South Africa by ship. She had lost her husband and bravely began a fresh chapter in this new land. Heinrich, Dorothea’s eldest boy, was just 11 when he began his South African journey alongside his mom and brother. Fast-forwarding to the next century; Heinrich had a son, named Friedrich and, in October 1938, Friedrich had a son named Conrad. Conrad is Johann’s Dad who has grown up in the Paddock / Izotsha area. Dorothea Buhr’s gravesite is still at the Izotsha Lutheran Church so, presumably, the family has never moved far. I was honoured to have spent some time with Conrad, who is no longer actively involved in the farming here at Waterfall Valley, as he recounted the family history and filled me in on his background, starting with the fact that he was born on the day that the Umzimkulu Cane Planters Association was formed, and he has the proof!
The founding statement above names the first Chair as Mr F. Wakefield. The local farmers had all been a part of Alexandria Association but broke away because of the vastly different local conditions of farmers supplying the Umzimkulu mill and also the distance growers had to travel to attend meetings in Umzinto. It all happened on the day Conrad was born which explains why Friedrich wasn’t listed as ‘present’.
Conrad remembers being taken to school in an ox cart and fetched later when the farm-hand brought the horses to the school in the afternoon. They bought their first tractor in 1948 and the first bakkie in the early 50’s. After honing his mechanical skills, Conrad joined his Dad on the farm in 1956. Back then they had chickens, cattle, veggies … mostly cash crops. “Sugarcane made an entrance in about ’63 or ’64,” remembers Conrad, “there had always been a lot of wattle on the farm, but everyone was changing to sugarcane in the 60’s.”
Although Conrad was too young to remember, his first home was built in 1940 by Italian prisoners of war from the camp stationed in Pietermaritzburg. The Stone Chapel on the left of the freeway, near Epworth School marks the place they were ‘kept’ during the war. But, they were a content bunch, grateful to have been in South Africa, where the Red Cross kept to the letter of the law regarding prisoner welfare. Conrad remembers stories about their good relationship with the prisoners and the photo above, with the inscription “with affection to the Buhr family” certainly substantiates that claim.
Alexia and Conrad Buhr, Johann’s mom and dad
Friedrich’s wife, Conrad’s mom, was a remarkable woman. She was an astute farmer, even long after her husband passed away. She is best remembered for her feather and down operation which is still being run, on a much smaller scale, by Johann’s wife, Lee-Ann.
Conrad has three brothers; one is an accountant, Gerald lives here on this same farm, handling the bovine operation and Ronnie Buhr is someone we met when we looked into his son’s operation (Mark Buhr) in Harding.
Now that the context is set, we can present the equally impressive, current ‘World of Buhr’.
Rachel and Emma (12 yr old twins), Lee-Ann, Grace (10 yrs old) and Johann Buhr.
So, firstly, I was treated to a world-class breakfast with the whole family in attendance. Lee-Ann home-schools the girls so it would have been great if I was more interesting “exposure” for them (as my ‘SugarBytes farmers’ know, an interview with me is very underwhelming). But we had a wonderful time together, me being more impressed by their home industry entrepreneurship and Lee-Ann’s remarkable view on life in general.
Meet the extended family: Poppy the piglet and Nina the horse, both of them captivated me completely.
Johann studied a Bachelor of Agricultural management, which is a combination of a BComm and a BSc. He says it is a great degree and gave him a broader view on farming. Starting in the family business as an employee, he built up necessary skills in preparation of his next step – buying shares. In order to build up capital to buy these shares, he approached his Dad and Uncles to lease the entire cane farming division from them. About the same time that this restructuring happened, he chose to diversify his career by studying Financial Planning and branching out with this additional skill set. He has been able to juggle both balls by employing a Farm Manager. Danie van Eden has been in this role for about 9 years now and is a perfect fit for the operation and personalities involved. He is knowledgeable, experienced and has the perfect temperament to handle both staff and family challenges.
And now, down to the details of successful cane farming, which, as we all know by now, begins with a well-diversified portfolio …
Money Matters: Johann’s most significant diversification has already been touched on; Financial Planning. Every day he is up between 4 and 5am so he can attend to farm admin before rumbling in to town where he dons his other hat. This additional vocation not only provides him with an alternate income stream, it also flexes another part of his brain and gives him some great insight, “It really has broadened my view of things. I only realised I was lacking when I started to work in town – the world is so much bigger than what you sometimes see as a farmer,” explains Johann, “I always thought I was rather hard done by when I was employed full-time on the farm but perspective has shown me how fortunate most farmers are, and they’ll never know it.” The financial skills Johann has built, together with his own family and farming experiences make him the perfect advisor for what I have witnessed so much of: tricky farming family succession plans.
Feeling Feathers: Although Lee-Ann is a qualified teacher, she chose to get involved in farming shortly after she married Johann. The early years were spent learning, from Johann’s granny, the tricky art of parting a goose from its down, humanely. There were over 1200 geese then but she has chosen to downsize it considerably now.
Cattle: Gerald, Johann’s uncle, runs a herd of about 220 animals. The vast tracks of unproductive land on the farm are ideal for grazing.
Timber: 40 hectares of the barely arable land is used for gum and wattle.
Macs: 19 hectares of mostly A4s and Beaumonts have been planted thus far. As with most farmers, Johann has been drawn to the opportunity of making more money on less land, an alluring prospect for all growing families who cannot secure more land. The gravity-fed irrigation system is a blessing; it currently supplies all the homes, pastures and the young mac trees.
The dams were half empty until about a month ago but are now at capacity, relieving Johann of some anxiety about the approaching winter.
And now a spotlight on the main actor – Sugarcane.
- When a field is due to be replanted, it is sprayed with herbicide to kill off the old ratoons. The field is then ripped and limed as per the average soil sample recommendations – 2,5 to 3 tonnes per hectare. The lime is disked in.
- A green crop is then planted, depending on the time of year, soil requirements and weather.
- The cloudy, cooler, misty conditions in December tend to inhibit germination of any green crops so Danie makes a decision based on the current prevailing conditions. Late summer, when things warm up, yields far better results in terms of green crop
- In summer, sunhemp, mixed with sorghum and oats seems to work well, with the legume boosting nitrogen levels. Sorghum helps boost organic matter content and carbon levels. Green cropping has had a significant effect on one field in particular which is now performing a lot better since it was supplemented with a green crop in a few seasons ago. In winter, black oats grows well. Sometimes cattle feed crops are used depending on the requirements in that part of the business.
- Sandier soils need all the organic matter they can get. These soils also struggle with eel-worm and Danie shares that he has had some relief from Jap radishes, which break this pest’s cycle.
- Danie emphasises that it is important that a green crop is disked INTO the soil, whilst still green, so that micro-organism life is stimulated. “Don’t wait for the green crop to die before incorporating it into the soil,” is his advice.
- They then leave a bit of time (only about 2 weeks, for the crop to be incorporated into the soil) before ridging.
- 2:3:4 fertiliser is placed in the furrow.
- Seed, grown on the farm, is placed, double-stick, in the furrow by contract planters. It is then chopped. Johann says that using younger seed cane is showing promising results. Previously, 18-month old cane was the norm but they have recently started reducing that age to around 12 months and the results are noteworthy.
- In their experience, spraying for eel worm has not shown a return on investment. The furrow is simply closed, without any further supplements, and the planters walk over the beds to settle the soil around the billets.
- Replanting generally happens every 4 to 5 ratoons although some ratoons are still productive going on the 10th
The recent trialling of camber beds in wet areas is showing brilliant results.
The fields above have been planted in camber beds to give the cane some relief from the wet conditions and are performing superbly since this change has been implemented. Here, the N39, having outgrown its rust, is looking great. The crop will be harvested in May/June (at about 20 months) and Johann is expecting about 100 – 105 t/h with an RV in the region of 13,5 – 14% RV. N39 is the best variety in these conditions.
- N12 makes up 50% of the cane on Waterfall Valley. Johann hopes to cut this back a bit once the latest new varieties have been fully assessed. But … it’s just so reliable and, if you can get it to maturity, it’ll deliver both weight and purity making it a very hard variety to depart from.
- N39 is the next most prolific at about 30%. Rust plagues this variety and the ratoonability is also disappointing. On the upside; it did perform well in early ratoons which is why there is so much of it on the farm but that just reinforces the need to test promising varieties over a fairly long time period before making a big commitment.
The N39 in the foreground is clearly getting a hiding from rust while the N12 in the background is rust-free.
- N31 is one Danie is moving away from; it is prone to eldana and has not delivered in terms of RV. The relatively extensive distance to the mill means that here, they farm for quality over quantity.
- N52 is looking promising on the sandier soils.
- N37 is proving to be a little bit of a delinquent … its softness means that even the false-toothed eldana can move in. It is also inclined to rust.
SASRI uses Waterfall Valley to bulk up new varieties – the benefits of this are an onsite trials of variety performance and the ratoons that remain after the SASRI harvest. Although many seasons are necessary for a long-term evaluation, they do ‘get in early’. N50 is looking quite good. The first commercial field of N55 has just been planted out … and it’s looking very promising.
N58 & N59 are still on probation (Johann and Danie are very reluctant to make any premature calls since being disenchanted somewhat by N39). N63, N65 & N68 are all in the ground but it’s way too early to say anything about those.
Here’s a handy bit of information that Danie was reluctant to let me share with us: If grasses are particularly bad in a PLANT field he’ll spray Roundup when the cane is just spiking (protective wax layer on the spike protects the young cane). This generally sorts out the grass problem. The reason he’s cautious about putting this out there is that the window is only a couple of days – if you get the timing wrong you can seriously damage your crop. But, when Barbie and Kweek grasses are making you prematurely grey, extreme measures are called for. Danie only takes the risk with problem fields and has mastered the fine art of precision timing.
The herbicide trend here, in a ratoon field, is to spray DIRECTLY after harvesting; the sooner, the better. With no slip ups, not even in Winter when everyone thinks nature is buying you some time. When labour was cheaper they used to maintain the fields by hand after a harvest and then start the spray programme in spring but now they’ve realised the need to get on top of the weeds without labour..
The focus on chemicals has been much greater in last few years. Weeds impact yields as well as RV – all measures to preserve income are essential in this tight market.
In saying that, ripeners have not delivered good results on this farm and are now avoided. Johann and Danie concede that their longer growing cycles made them marginal users anyway but, after a few negative trials, they are now not a part of the programme at all. Perhaps the newer, shorter cycle varieties will force them to reconsider but it will take some convincing …
Eldana management has helped significantly in terms of yields and RV, in fact it’s been a game changer. Aging the cane has always been a challenge but, with a Coragen/Ampligo programme, they have been able to get the cane through to maturity and reap the benefits of elevated RVs. Last year, the overall quality was up substantially and compensated for the slight decline in tonnes. Being 30kms from the mill, the net result was more than acceptable.
Thrips is a problem here and effective controls have eluded the farmers. January and February are the worst months meaning that the earlier they plant the cane, the better it pushes through; they therefore rush to get everything in before shut-down. At this altitude, and this far inland, the warmer, germinating window is small as it is, putting additional time pressure on the planting contractors.
As touched on, eelworms plague the sandy soils and Danie would be a happy man if he could eradicate this invisible curse.
The sandy soils present challenges in the form of eel worm and a layer of iron pellets, a few cms below the surface.
- The team here don’t rush to fertilise. The focus is on addressing weed problems effectively and then, from November, fertilising starts.
- 1:0:1 LAN-based fertiliser is applied on plant fields as top dress. The use of this non-volatilising option has shown positive results over the last few years.
- Either 6:1:9 or 2:0:3 is used on ratoon fields, depending on the bank balance. Fortunately, these soils release phosphates fairly easily – meaning that they do not have to ensure that there are large additional doses.
Johann has been interested to read, in previous SugarBytes articles, that tasking has not been successful in all situations. A few years ago, he started implementing tasking and it has showed great results in this environment. All we can deduce is that each farm has its own unique set of characters and management styles. Here, when tasking started, the lazy employees left and the good people felt challenged and fulfilled at being able to strive for individual targets.
Waterfall Valley has a fairly small complement of permanent staff: only 28 in all, with 20 of them dedicated to the sugar division. All planting and harvesting is done by seasonal labour leaving Johann’s people to focus on weeding, spraying, driving and general labour tasks.
Burning is the norm here as the cool climate prohibits germination through a thick trash blanket. As we discuss the harvest process, I realise that Danie’s universal weapon is timing and he uses it here again, burning only enough cane for two days of cutting and then ensuring that the cane is delivered to the mill within two days. He battled to achieve this until they bought into a transport co-op last season. Since then, cane has been rolling off the farm timeously and, as a result, RVs have improved dramatically.
Another recent change (4 years) in this department is from cut and stack to cut and windrow. Unacceptable labour productivity was the major push behind this change as the operation was simply not achieving its DRDs. Besides achieving daily delivery requirements, they are now also able to achieve, with one tractor, what it used to take three to get through. I asked about soil compaction related yield declines that may be caused by the 3-wheelers and other heavier in-field traffic, but Johann and Danie have not noticed a correlation between the two factors.
Cutters, although outsourced, are now much more productive and earn more in a day than they did previously, some of them harvesting up to 14 tonnes in a day.
This field of N55 is looking very promising. Although the leaves are very upright, delaying canopy, the sticks already have an impressive girth.
Office-related activities, like admin, record-keeping, general IT and finances are a strength for Johann – rare for a farmer. Nevertheless, he still gets his mom to attend to the finer detail while he maintains a more strategic overview. His skill is going to come in handy with further diversification as most crops require more administrative detail than sugarcane, especially when export becomes part of the plan.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
When I started compiling this section, I began to feel as though someone had broken string of pearls and they were bouncing around uncontrollably. It’s taken a while, but I hope to have strung them coherently enough for you to learn from:
- Danie strongly suggests that everyone who hasn’t done the Sugar Senior Certificate Course, offered by SASA, do it. He did his in 1992 but he still finds it relevant and useful.
- Johann adds that, even more so than in the past, farming must not be considered a “get rich quick” scheme. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Any profits reaped have to be reinvested or sustainability will slip through your muddy fingers.
- Johann and Lee-Ann also had an interesting view on the responsibilities of being land owners; they appreciate the accountability of the role in that it is much more about sustaining people than about turning great profits. They have an obligation to leave a legacy, not only to their own progeny but also to those who rely on the farm to support their families. The details of farming are learnable, it’s the wisdom of how to curate the whole operation sustainably that is really important.
- Throughout our discussion, I picked up on numerous factors that may have been responsible for RV increases over the last few seasons and asked how they knew which input to credit with the positive outcome. Bottom line is that you can’t know for sure; all you can do is continuously work on factors that are within your control. There are plenty of ‘uncontrollables’ (weather, prices etc) that will keep disrupting your outcomes – sometimes positively. You just can’t worry about what’s not in your control.
- Johann said something worth considering when he pointed out that, although cane is a forgiving crop and can withstand some pretty poor farming practices, it also has the potential to reward a studious farmer handsomely if some intentional focus is invested in the ‘controllables’ (fertiliser, weed-management, timing etc etc).
- And then, I’m not sure whether this qualifies as ‘wisdom’, but the girls said a few things that I felt were valuable:
- They were laughing at their mom when they told me how often Lee-Ann drives up the driveway towards their home and sighs, “we’re so blessed.” Entitlement is so dangerous and sometimes it can become difficult to discern where you start and your land ends. Lee-Ann sees the distinction clearly and fully appreciates how ‘blessed’ she is to be where she is today. But, if tomorrow places her in a different place, that’s okay too. She knows she is not entitled to this land but she deeply appreciates being able to live here and share it with her children. That’s valuable.
- The other bit of wisdom is more for the farmers wives out there (or whomever does the decorating) … The Buhr home was spectacularly decorated with unique and individual pieces that oozed comfortable charm. Being décor skill-challenged, I asked for some advice and the answer was profound; Lee-Ann repeated what her aunt had taught her, “When you find something you like, take it home, even when you’re not sure on its final spot. All the things you collect will ultimately work together because they’re all your” I’m still not sure I’ll be able to pull together anything mildly ‘good’ but, it did give me confidence to be a bit braver.
Waterfall Valley is a large piece of paradise; indulge in this visual feast as we wind down:
Sure signs of a healthy ecosystem …
The homestead as seen from the top of the krans.
A herd of Impala escaped from the neighbours about 30 years ago and have been prevented from wandering any further by the Oribi Gorge. Here they are in the soon-to-be mac orchards …
Oribi Gorge in the distance …
Prehistoric petrified tortoise or my wild imagination?
Johann surveys the playground of his youth …
… complete with waterfalls (the reason the farm is named Waterfall Valley).
And, on that note, I leave you with an essence of Buhr:
Thank you, Buhr bunch, for sharing some of your legacy with SugarBytes …