|Date||28 March 2017|
|Area under cane||84 hectares (excl roads and waterways)|
|Total farms size||110 hectares|
|Other crops/businesses||4 hectares Macadamias, bees, DNA Agric Services, CRT Trading,
|Distance from coast||Approx 4 kms|
|Latitude||– 30’ south|
|Dominant Soil type||Glenrosa Soil Form from Granite Soil Parent Material|
|Cutting cycle||Average 18 months|
|Average yields||95 – 130 t/hectare|
Arriving at Vince’s place was like entering a little metropolis in a choppy green sea. The “sea” appeared choppy because of all the many small growers around Vince, each one with his own shade of green cane. The metropolis was the hive of activity around the Drew residence: a bustling trading store surrounded by a gypsey-like settlement. I later found out that this is a base for the local security company. Now that’s smart! Host the security company on your property – guarantee yourself some record-breaking response times!
Smart and bustling is what Vince is all about – he is a mover and a shaker: easy to see why he is top of his game.
I started off the interview as I usually do – explaining that I would be running a voice recording (I do this to make sure I am accurate in reporting the farmers story; it keeps me honest) and, usually, my subjects are a little amused. Not Vince. He told me all about his recording app that is used to capture all his important phonecalls. Made me look like a complete amateur; I knew this was going to be a farmer with a difference …
And almost immediately, the next big difference between Vince and his compatriots became evident: Vince was not born into a farm. A love for farming was all he has ever known though and he had a dad who managed farms all his life. Vince knew what he wanted to do and consequently, Weston Agricultural College had the privilege of schooling him. After small detours (of conscripted military service and then a small soiree of working for the SABC in the filming of the movie: Shaka Zulu) he refocused on his true passion and worked for Illovo Sugar from the age of 21, as a trainee, in the fields. After 11 months as a trainee, he was promoted to an Assistant Manager for 6 years and then a farm manager, running one of their large farms. He was with Illovo a total of 13 years.
Illovo then started to split some of their farms up in anticipation of the land redistribution programme. The farm he was managing was split into 14 medium size farms and, gradually, it became Vince’s job to get all the medium-sized farms into cycle and run a training programme for the new land owners. I know you all sense what’s coming next: frustration – something I think we would all be feeling when tasked with getting others to do what you just want to handle yourself. Eventually, Vince sked to be reassigned back to a farm that he could manage independently. His request was declined but his new job sweetened with the prospect that he might be able to secure one of the distributed farms for himself. And that’s exactly what happened, and Vince became his own farmer again; the only pale, empowered farmer in the area. Vince will always be eternally grateful to Illovo for the role they played in his life – not only for the opportunity to own his own farm but also for the farming education they gave him. Since “privatising” – and he has been on his own for 18 years now – and still appreciates the depth and extent of knowledge he gained whilst in Illovo’s employ.
A proud Vince, in some VERY impressive cane
He has also built up a substantial contract harvesting business, which was a natural consequence of helping his neighbours and creating economies of scale for his equipment. What I found incredibly interesting was that none of Vince’s contracts are written agreements (maybe that’s the value of recording conversations?) – everything is a verbal, gentleman’s agreement. It says a lot about how much a man values the integrity of his word.
I found this section difficult to write because it is rather “full and colourful” – difficult to capture … Vince comes from a family of traders. This business foundation has proven invaluable for the diversified portfolio he operates. Grandfather Drew was one of eight brothers – all traders, all with registered births in Kokstad.
Let me break Vince’s empire into separate businesses:
- Trading Store: When Vince was offered the Illovo deal and found himself having to borrow money, it ignited a new project – the trading store. He used the income generated from this store to repay the loan, which he did in only seven years. He also managed to assist two other farmers buy their farms in that time.
- Contract harvesting: When Vince went from farming 1200 hectares down to 100 hectares (Illovo employee to running his own farm) he found he had time, energy and plenty of reason to diversify into contract harvesting. Scales of economy on his equipment as well as a dire need from all the surrounding small scale growers made the venture feasible. Eventually, this business grew to 140 000 tonnes annually, but he has since cut back.
- CRT Fuels and Lubricants: This is the perfect company to operate amongst so many small users, within an industry that uses a lot of fuel and lubricants.
- Hire of Plant: Vince has 7 Bell cane loaders, 2 Bell Timber loaders and 2 TLB’s which are all available for hire.
One of the fuel trucks belonging to CRT, Vince’s fuel and lubricant business
- Macadamias: This is not Vince’s first love and he admit being a little sceptical about his venture into this crop. He is now 53 and wants to retire in five years’ time. His children won’t be farming – they have all chosen their own paths. And Sugar is what runs through his veins. But, when he started to cut back on the contracting business, he had more time to focus on his own farm and in the last four years he has really knuckled down and paid attention to this. An upside to putting the macs in is the value it will add to his farm when he sells. The macs have been planted in rows of 4,5 x 4,5 so that, when they grow a bit, he will replant them out at the recommended 4,5 x 9 and have a total of 8 hectares of macs.
- Bees: As a result of putting the macs in, he decided to support them with pollenators. Vince’s interest in these little insects is intense – their part in sustaining our planet vital. He has a honey spinner and plans to extend this business into a travelling pollination service – a little like in the USA “Follow the Honey Flow” …
- DNA Agricultural Services: Four years ago, this company was launched – focuses on the upliftment of farmers who bought Illovo farms. It pained Vince to see the farm he used to manage go from 55 000T down to 28 000T. He presented a business plan to Illovo as to how this decline could be turned around and they’ve been given 5 years to make the difference. They currently mentor 12 land owners. Advising is all they can do, implementing the advice lies squarely in the hands of the owners although Vince is happy to assist with that too. He is very excited about two huge success stories in particular: the one farm should have been doing 11 000T and was only doing 2 000T when Vince took it on board. It has improved from 2000T the first year, the second year to 5000 T, last year to 7000T and now the estimate for this current season is at 9500T. In two years he is hoping to have it up to 12000T. This owner, who since bought a neighbours farm has now handed his operation over to Vince completely. He is a businessman in Ixopo and is so happy to have Vince’s expertise turn his farm into something that makes him a lot of money. Vince laughs when he tells me that some of these farms are doing better than his own because of the new varieties they have planted. One field, on a neighbours farm, cut 2064T last year whereas the whole farm cut just 1800T in the previous year!
Vince, stopping to chat to one of the small-scale growers he advises.
These are all enterprises that would fit comfortably into any farmers portfolio and they all help to pull Vince through troughs in the farming sector.
EXTENDING GROWING CYCLES
This is an area that is receiving much attention from Vince and something he attributes much of his success to. Previously he ran a 12-month cycle but has been extending that and is thrilled with the yields from his new cycle, averaging at 18,5 months. This development has forced him to create effective drainage through the farm, but, it is an investment he is more than willing to make, given the increased yields he is netting. Before, he would get 50 – 55 T from valley bottom fields that he would have to cut every 12 months to avoid the water-logging in summer. Those same fields are now up to 104T just by adding 6 months to the growing cycle and effective drainage. Oddly enough, the drought actually assisted with this process as the fields did not endure their usual flooding, allowing for the first of the longer growing cycles, without drainage. When we put 4 kms from the coast and extended growing cycles together, the next obvious question is always “Eldana?”. Nope – none of those on Vince’s farm. He really doesn’t know why. Maybe because there is never a shortage of stressed cane in the vicinity.
Vince, inspecting the sets before dipping and planting
THE IMPORTANCE OF INVESTING IN THE PLANTING PHASE
This is another area receiving Vince’s attention and one to which he attributes much of this award – Top Sugar Cane farmer in SA.
When he replants a field, he does it with scientific precision, right from the planting of the right rotational crop (currently, Vince prefers beans) through to late fertilising and careful weeding.
This is his programme:
- Plant a rotational crop that will give your soil what it requires.
- Grow strong and healthy seedcane. Harvest it in full lengths and move it to a loading zone / clear area alongside the field to be planted.
- Prepare the field. Vince finds that, because he has such high clay soils, it helps tremendously that he fills the furrows with sand. This fills the ‘air pockets’ between the soil clods and helps to minimise rot of the seedcane.
- Cut seedcane into sets. Dip it into a fungicide that promotes germination. Vince has found this chemical has resulted in increased germination and much reduced rot. Definitely worth the investment in labour and product.
Vince, showing the drums of fungicide that he dips the seedcane into pre-planting
- The sets are then moved, in bags, into the field and laid in the furrows, planting at 1,5 stick or double stick.
It is important, at this point to explain some less obvious advantages of this methodology: cutting the sticks outside the furrow makes it easier to monitor the length of sets cut and to ensure that they are actually cut – these are two issues when cane is chopped in the furrow, both of which result in gaps, additional labour requirements for gapping and/or reduced yield.
- Spray for Thrips
- Cover the furrows evenly leaving no ridge or a very small ridge. Vince insists on an evenly covered field. This makes a remarkable difference is water distribution and is worth doing.
This is something the Pongola farmers spoke a lot about but it the first time I have heard a dry-crop farmer emphasise it.
The last few years have been Vince’s best ever, despite the drought. His farm has many valley bottoms that actually produce better in normal to drier years. He has learnt a whole new appreciation for rain and always welcomes it with gratitude, regardless of the damage it may cause. He can always go out and fix that. But you can’t break a drought. His extended growing cycle has necessitated improving his infrastructure of drainage though and it is something he suggests all farmers do, especially when it facilitates extended growing cycles.
THE RIGHT MANAGERS
Degrees and his herd of cattle which Vince has given him.
Wandile Majali is Vince’s right-hand man. He is an integral part of this operation’s success and Vince acknowledges that openly. He even admits that, should Degrees (Wandile’s nickname) leave for any reason, he would probably retire the same day – he really doesn’t want to run this show without him. Degrees enjoys running trials and has a keen interest in finding new and better ways to increase his success. What a valuable asset.
Vince does soil samples after every cut. He often sends those out to his fertiliser supplier (Kynoch) to cross check the results he gets from the conventional sources. Vince only uses Kynoch. This last season he used Kynoch Plus exclusively -this has a slower volatilisation rate than the conventional variation.
The next piece of advice Vince shares was learnt by mistake – his best crop ever was the result of late fertilising. For some reason, the fertiliser application was late and he was surprised to record a better result from that field. This correlation was discussed with an experienced neighbour who had also discovered better results through late fertilising. Personal trials have confirmed that the late application and higher yield were related so now, Vince makes it part of his practice. He leaves the young plants for a while. This practice forces the roots to go ‘hunting’ for the food they need, improving the root structure. Then the fertiliser is applied. Vince believes that this practice also reduces the effects of volatilisation because the leaf structure is progressive and shields the fertiliser. The same late-fertilising theories are being applied to the mac orchard. After a good rain, the trees are left for a while so that the root system extends in search of water, which will be there, just a little lower than they’re used to finding it. This then sets your plants up for a better outcome through a drought – a more extensive root system will naturally fair better than a short one. Sound advice.
Vince also recommends that farmers look carefully at the soil sample documentation and think carefully about how they fill it out. There is a question there that asks about your anticipated yield. He has been shocked to see farmers fill it in with their previous year’s yield or some other incredibly uninspired number. Fill it in with what you really want out of that field and aim high – as high as possible. Only when you believe you can, and you work towards those high aspirations, will they bear fruit. There’s a fine line – don’t waste money on excessive chemicals, but don’t waste opportunity either.
STANDARDS AND TASKING
Vince and Degrees focus intently on tasking in all operations. They believe the lack of this practice on some farms may be the reason behind their poor performance. Here, they spend a lot of time establishing standards and setting tasks in all operations.
To make this system work, standards need to be fair and staff need to be clear on what the task is and what the standard is. This practice has worked well and allows Vince to accurately project and manage the labour costs in his operation. It also makes for an easier work environment where nobody needs to be pushed for production. AND, costs actually decrease in this system. The absence of tasks allows standards to gradually slip and production to decrease – all of which escalate costs. This system does require management of standards. Inspections are regular and everyone is reminded of the STANDARD. Cane cutters are the least of the Vince’s concerns in this practice. They work well. There is a challenge in areas of weeding, planting, spraying, fertilising. Hand weeding is the particular challenge – it is labour intensive and requires special attention to set standards and tasks. Regardless of the management involved to set standards and tasks, Vince and Degrees believe it is worth the investment.
Vince does not battle with Eldana, but Thrips have been a challenge lately. He is now spraying all new plant fields when the furrows are open, directly on to the cane. This is a part of his programme of focusing on the planting process and dealing with as many issues as possible in this phase. So far, the results have been rewarding and strengthens Vince’s belief that this phase is the most important in a cane plants life. The next 10 to 15 years harvests are all founded on what you do then.
No corner cutting here. Vince minimises the use of generics and makes sure he buys the best possible product, regardless of the price. The aim is to minimise hand weeding in preference to spot spraying. Vince boldly admits a lesson he learnt this year; when extending his spot spraying practice to plant cane – he can now boldly advise others – DON’T SPOT SPRAY PLANT CANE (it dies) but the rest of the operation handles this practice well.
After trying different methods at different times of the year, Vince has settled on a programme that works for him, regardless of the time of the year. After planting at spike stage, he uses a short-term herbicide. Thereafter he will come in and clean up, using hand weeding and spot spraying, and simultaneously look after any gapping issues. He then applies a long-term herbicide and fertilises. He has found, in this last season, that minimal hand-weeding has been required.
Vince does not have any machinery infield. He uses a cut and stack operation. As much stacking as possible is done on the roadside but where that is not feasible, the tractor will go in and winch the cane on. No traditional cane-loaders are used. Vince believes the minimal soil compaction does have a positive effect on his yield.
When harvesting, base cutting and topping is also of vital importance. Cutters like to leave tops too high (adds to weight, on which they are paid) The standard in this department has been revised to state that the tops of the cane stalk must face outwards, and the roots inside so that it is very easy to check whether the tops have been cut correctly. This impacts RV figures.
CanePro is used in this operation. Vince employs a full-time admin assistant who teams up with Kim, Vince’s wife, to handle the admin tasks.
If there’s anything in this department that Vince feels adds to his success, it is having information readily available. Ie: if he needs to know what units a field has used, or how much diesel per hour a vehicle is using, that information is up to date and quickly accessible, allowing him to make decisions based on accurate and relevant data. Currently, Vince probably spends about 60% of his time in the office. This is not ideal and he is employing a full-time assistant so that he can spend closer to 70% of his time infield. Late afternoons is usually when Vince goes out and inspects – he loads up the dogs and his wife and goes and checks daily tasks like planting (by actually digging open a furrow) and spraying (inspection of fields that were sprayed a few weeks ago), so although Vince may not always be present when the staff are working, they know that evidence of their labour is easily apparent to the boss.
Because of the extensive power lines that criss-cross this farm, no ripening can be administered in the traditional methods. Despite this, Vince’s RV’s average at 12%. Can you imagine what they’d be like with ripeners! And he is working on this … there are drones available that can carry up to 15l of chemical. Their application is precision. This is an area that Vince is enthusiastically exploring. The capability of the technology is currently 10 hectares per day – making it a wonderful prospect. Exciting new avenues about to be discovered.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
Vince’s passion for great farming is enchanting. His eyes glint when he talks about empowering others and he crows about his neighbours successes as if they were his own … and, I suppose they are. Here is a short summary of his key pieces of advice:
- He attributes the majority of his success to standards and tasking.
- Sparing no cost for land prep and planting.
- The use of the best fertiliser and herbicide.
- The aging of his cane is also a huge contributor.
- Base cutting and topping is also of vital importance.
Once again, we come to the end of our wonderful, inspiring and valuable time with a Top 25 sugar cane farmer. Thank you, Vince, for your time and investment. You are legend. My quote for you as inspired by Malcolm Forbes who said: ‘Diversity – the art of thinking independently, together’. I have combined this with another line that won’t leave my head: ‘Fingers in many pies”