||22 March 2017
||Various. Lives on Curepipe
|Area under cane
|Total farms size
||60 hectares Macadamias
||300 natural bush and waterways etc
|Distance from coast
||Approx 11 kms
||– 29’ south
|Dominant Soil type
||TMS (Table Mountain Sandstone)
||16 – 18 months
Now THIS is a man on the move. Nick is restless, curious, entrepreneurial, fast-paced and so very very inspiring. At first, his energy made me a little nervous, looking around for the freight train we were trying to keep up with or that was going to hit us! But when you just jump on board, the pace is exhilarating. Can’t say I wasn’t exhausted when I left Curepipe but the ride was definitely motivating. By Nick’s own admission, he maintains a grueling pace in everything that he does – but some people are wired that way. The rest of us? We watch in awe. And, hopefully, we learn a few things that we could implement on our own farms … at a less crushing pace.
In 1956 Nick’s parents immigrated from Mauritius. They bought the last two farms available in greater Umhlali area. One was named Labourdonnais after the first French governor of Mauritius. Eight years later they purchased the neighbouring farm, Bon Espoir. Both were virgin bush but he took on the mammoth task of taming them and, by 1970, all farms were fully under cane. The difficulty of this task cannot be over-stated: they were, and still are, hard, steep farms. Sadly, in 1984, when Nick was only 15, his dad passed away. Nick finished school and was called up (National Conscription) to the navy. But the farms were struggling without a Captain at the helm so, in October 1987, Nick plucked up the courage to approach his Naval Officer to ask for a release from his duties. The intimidating man requested a visit to the farm for a first-hand evaluation. When they got there, they both saw a failed operation – one that was literally in liquidation. The seemingly ’hard as stone’ commander spoke to Nick’s mom and then released Nick to rescue the farming operation. Herein Nick learnt one of his greatest life lessons, and one I think we can all take on board: Ask. It costs nothing and you may be pleasantly surprised at the answer. Oh – and never judge a book by its cover!
So, this was going to be more of a gap year – Nick had no intention of staying. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but it wasn’t farming. Just some time sorting things out and he’d be on his way … and here we are, 30 years later, on the very same spot but we may as well be in another world – Nick has done more than a good job in ‘cleaning up’. Over the years he has expanded the operation by purchasing the neighbouring farms as they became available.
‘Fixing things’ came easily to Nick as he demonstrated in one of his earliest interventions: Chicken farming. You might all be wondering when this became a chicken farming website, but stick with me …. there’s a point. In 1988, it was common practice to pay staff, partly, in rations. This farm included chicken in those rations. Nick could not source any chicken for months and eventually decided to grow them himself. He bought some day-old chicks and began the chicken business he never knew would become a major force in his empire. Yes, this “short term fix” became a thriving business that, at some points, has contributed half of the total operation’s (sugar cane included) bottom line. He’s up to 50T per week … that’s about 25 000 broilers per week. He has been a contract supplier to local chicken companies. As we were sitting together, Nick was waiting on news as to whether the contract would be renewed, given the dire situation that the poultry industry currently finds itself but, in this digression from sugarcane, we find an incredibly valuable lesson that Nick emphasises. A lot of his success, in surviving the drought and excelling in business in general, is diversification. He strongly advises that all sugar cane farmers employ this strategy, be it with an alternate crop or livestock or whatever opportunity presents itself – be on the lookout for diversification prospects. Keep in mind that if you can utilise existing equipment in the new ventures, it will reduce the capital expenditure required, thereby limiting your risk exposure.
Oh, and during this time of turning an insolvent operation into one that was now acquiring new farms and broadening into poultry, Nick also started studying for his BComm degree through UNISA. Truly impressive. Education is another facet Nick insists is largely responsible for his success and recommends that farmers are well-rounded in their education: farming itself is not difficult to learn, especially when you have grown up watching it happen all around you – it is the business side of the operation that is sometimes neglected and becomes the downfall of a brilliant farmer. Nick studied because he was still planning to move off the farm and begin his own career. In hindsight, he sees the value it has given him right where he was always going to be – in farming.
Macadamias are one of the avenues into which Lincoln Enterprises has diversified
So, currently in total, Nick is farming 1150 hectares of sugar cane and 60 hectares of macadamias at varying stages: 5 hectares were planted 10 years ago, a further 20 hectares are 2 years old and, last year, 35 hectares were added. He has just erected and commissioned a de-husking plant to further his investment in this sector of his business. The day I visited was actually ‘test day’ … starting to feel like I had chosen the busiest possible day of Nick’s life for this interview … but, I quickly realised that every day in Nick’s life is this busy … and although it was intense, no freight train had hit us yet! This de-husking facility is yet another income stream for Nick, as a few of his like-minded mac-growing neighbours will put their produce through this facility until it reaches capacity and then they will build their own. More diversification – an important lesson for us all.
Brand spanking new Macadamia drying plant
Time to refocus on sugarcane. How did Nick survive the drought with his sugar crop? He attributes some of this to having extended his growing cycle to 16 – 18 months. Being only about 11kms from the coast, my next question was obviously going to be about Eldana … Nick sighs … and laughs … yes, they keep him busy. He does a lot of scouting. As with Dustin Cooper, our previous farmer interviewed, he doesn’t wait for the Eldana to move onto mains if they even get to starters. He does preventative spraying in response to the results of the scouting. The aging of the cane for a further 4 months results in much higher revenue than what it costs to prevent the Eldana during this phase, so – it’s a no-brainer – extending the growing cycle makes financial sense. Nick has properly equipped himself to spray for Eldana. Nick uses battery-operated knapsacks to spray. If the cane lodges, he pulls out the large, tractor-mounted Jacto sprayer (see pic below). Effective, registered pesticides have only been available in the last 3 years and have given many farmers the option to now extend the growing time of their plants and protect them during this final phase. Adrean Naude, Nick’s SASRI extension officer, has been pivotal in this side of his operation as the environment is of utmost importance and blanket spraying has never been an option. Together, Nick and Adrean do scouting every month and decide if and where spraying is necessary. If it is then spraying happens that same day. It is a very carefully managed element of his farming operation, because of the environmental risks.
In the interests of other farmers learning from Nick’s experience I would like to re-emphasise his advice here:
- Monitor your crop. Put in the effort and see for yourself what is happening all over.
- Record results so that you can see immediately when you have a problem.
- Investigate the possible causes and their solutions.
- Address these issues in detailed focus.
Three years ago, when Nick’s crop was not what it should have been, he followed these steps exactly. He decided to treat his Eldana problem and carry the cane over. Last year, in the worst drought ever, he had a record crop – clearly the outcome of following these four steps has been profitable. In this instance, it was treating the Eldana issue but it could apply to any scenario and is advice worth implementing across all farming operation facets.
This lead me to enquire as to Nick’s record results. His best yield ever was 151 tonnes/hectare from N51 plant cane at 17 months old. Unbelievable!
Other varieties on this farm are: N17, N37, N39, N41. His favourite varieties include N56, N58 with the winners being N48, N55 and N59. Varieties he is moving away from are N37, N31 and N39 as well of the banned N376 (which has too high a susceptibility to smut and other fungi).
Back to the drought …
Nick does not irrigate at all. He grows most of his own seedcane and even this is not irrigated. This farm is very steep and is not really suitable for irrigation. He does buy in seedcane to supplement his own requirements.
Why sugarcane? Nick was ‘born into this crop’ but has always considered alternatives. Reasons for staying in sugarcane include the fact that the barriers to market that prove to be a stumbling block with other crops are not an issue with cane. Sugar cane is also forgiving and fairly easy to grow. Nick explains the current trend of diversifying into mac farming with this simple maths model which investigates the effort to reward ratio.
He uses a very simple example to illustrate his point: To increase the yield of a hectare of cane by 10 tonnes can cost around R3000 and that extra yield can bag you about R5000 / hectare more, so the effort you are putting in nets about R2000. Some farmers may feel that it is not return enough to invest that additional effort – understandable. Now turn the focus to macs: very little effort will yield R100 000 per hectare. A good farmer can easily double that. Brilliant mac farmers bring in R400 000 per hectare!
His illustration speaks for itself and helps to explain the widespread diversification.
It also explains why some sugar cane farmers simply CHOOSE not to excel – they feel it is not worth the effort. It also helps me to understand the common trait I see in all the top farmers I have interviewed: they simply can’t help being the best they can possibly be. They are brilliant farmers but they are also the type of people that would be brilliant in whatever situation they found themselves. They simply choose to do the best possible job they can. In that is another valuable lesson: make excellence a habit, part of your DNA. Before you know it, everything you touch will ‘turn to gold’.
What about other alternatives? Nick is trialling Moringa (aka The Miracle Tree) which is a health product that requires many processes to get it ‘market ready’. He continues to assess the long-term viability of this crop and the jury is still out. Humidity is a barrier to entry for many crops in this area – eliminating those that are susceptible to mildew and other fungi. Topography also cuts down on options: Intense mechanisation, like timber crops require, simply can’t be employed on such slopes. Macadamias are very suited though and are growing so well, smashing many records and forcing farmers to show proof that their crops are as young as they claim, as Nick had to do recently when a visitor disputed that his 18 month old trees were not 3 years old. A dated photo left the visitor astounded and impressed.
But, let’s get back to sugarcane …
Nick uses ONLY L.A.N.-based fertiliser. He splits the application in half and considers it pure stupidity that a farmer wouldn’t split. It takes hard work and double management but really isn’t an option for any farmer wanting to achieve better bottom line results. He is seriously considering splitting his application into thirds. All applications on this operation are by hand because of the gradient on most fields. This has the positive spin-off of reducing compaction. As far as organic supplements – Nick gets an appropriate mix and does a ‘green’ crop on every field whenever it is to be replanted. He also limes and gypsums every field according to its specific requirements. I was astounded to hear that the majority of farmers are not analysing and/ or treating their fields to correct the imbalances. Surely this is a simple, obvious and essential exercise?
The important lessons here are: get your soil samples done. It is the only way to know what corrective steps to take. Consultation of the SASRI ‘gurus’ (aka Extension Officers) is essential. They are agronomists who have the specialist knowledge that a farmer needs. It is the only way to take your soil from where it is to where it has to be in order to maximise your crop.
Nick does not ripen as a rule but rather applies ripeners depending on the purity counts and on moisture content. He uses a refractometer to measure these readings.
Needs to be done SO carefully, not only because of the expense of the chemicals but also because there is a cost associated with inaccurate spraying in terms of the effect on the crop or insect control AND there is the critical expense to the environment if spraying is irresponsible. Because this area of farming is such a minefield, Nick contacted a local tracking company, and invested in GPS equipment which works with ‘flow activated technology’ which allows him to track application, currently used in the Macs. All terribly high-tech and oh-so fascinating. What happens is that the GPS device is fitted to the spray equipment. All fields have already been mapped and synced with the app. The movement of the equipment will show up in one colour on the map so you’ll see it moving up and down the rows in the field. As soon as flow is detected (spraying is active) then the colour of the moving equipment changes on the app. Eg: no spray shows up as a green line. Flow (spraying) shows up as red. This is effective in making sure that spraying (as opposed to someone just walking the rows) is actually happening. Nick is so excited about this technology, as it allows him to monitor his 24-hour operation and still get a few hours of sleep in.
Nick and some other local farmers have invested in this technology, and are finding ways to use it in the application of fertilisers and herbicides as well.
Management of labour is a time-consuming element in farming. This technology helps to cuts back in this area. The plan is that the farmer gets up in the morning, opens the app, and checks the fields that were supposed to have been sprayed the night before. He sees that Gang 3 should have applied spray to field A6 so the whole field should be showing up red. Instead, he sees that only half is red, the rest is green or not marked at all which tells him that they either walked the rest of the field without applying anything (green lines) or didn’t even walk it (blank). It will only take this one incident for Gang 3 to realise that Mkulu Baas has ‘eyes’ in the tank and can see exactly what they are doing ALL THE TIME. Wonderful. Effective. Powerful. Management through technology. ANOTHER business venture that Nick is involved in. Surely this man has more hours in his day than the rest of us?
Any other pests: YES. Yellow aphid. A real thorn in Nick’s side. We stand on the veranda and he shows me two areas that are clearly, visibly affected. It seems to be a susceptible band of land that is falling victim to this bug. There are chemicals available but their efficacy is questionable. Nick believes that drone technology will be the answer here: spraying from a drone fitted with an infrared camera which is activated when it detects the infected/affected field. “How far away are we from this?” I ask, thinking that it sounds incredibly futuristic. “Two weeks” is Nick’s answer! Apparently, this technology is already being used in other parts of the world so bringing it here is simple. Avionic robotic farming has arrived! It is horrendously expensive but seems to be the only viable solution. Nick’s equipment used to spray the Eldana cannot be used because aphids use whatever moves through the field as transportation into new territory. That, and the fact that the aphids live under the leaves make it a difficult pest. The drone has down thrust which creates a wind that swirls the leaves as it hovers over the field. It can therefore administer the pesticide effectively (under the leaves) without actually touching the leaves and spreading the aphids. Sounds like the perfect solution.
Yellow Aphids are a challenge
Nick uses very soft chemicals when it comes to controlling weeds. He does not use any long term or pre-emergent chemicals only soft post-emergent chemicals. He spot sprays up to three times to keep on top of any outbreaks. He follows this strategy because it is the gentlest on the environment AND, he believes, gives his yield the best possible chance. He has been following this strategy for 4 years now. His herbicide bill has halved, his weed control is perfect and his yield has never been better.
Nick employs an interesting strategy to motivate his permanent workers to do their best every day. It does not affect their daily wages – if they’re at work, they get paid in full. His approach works with their annual bonus which is determined monthly. His team of managers will monitor anyone performing below expectations and, together with the employee, decide whether their actions constituted their best efforts. Agreement is reached that the action was below expectations and a month of the bonus will be withheld. The staff respond well, always aiming higher and they feel like they are part of the process in that they are consulted on the activity that penalised them. Eg: A tractor driver drove on a flat tyre, thereby damaging it. Together they agree that the damage could have been prevented had he stopped driving. His actions caused more cost than was necessary and he loses that month’s bonus. He learns a lesson but still has 11 months in which to earn a bonus. Nick finds that the staff actually use the system to look after each other: someone will see another doing something wrong and warns them, “Don’t do that, you will get a cross” (this is how records are kept – as crosses on a big board in the office) The system works incredibly well and as Nick moves around the farm, it only takes a wave of his hand in the air, forming an imaginary cross to get employees to assess whether they are making good decisions. Nick pioneered this system this year to resolve the “nyaga nyaga” over bonuses paid at the end of the year. It really didn’t work when he felt an employee had performed below par all year but had no recollection of that at the end of the year when it came to bonus time. It didn’t help for Nick to then say, “Remember in March when you drove over that pipe and caused all that damage? And in June, when you set the mower too low and scarified all the grass? And in October, when you didn’t spray the last field properly? Well, that is why you are not getting a bonus now, in December.” It works so much better to deal with issues when they happen, deduct that month’s bonus and move on having learnt from the situation and still having the opportunity to earn a bonus in the following months. Labour challenges are high on the list for all farmers and this might be a brilliant strategy for other farmers to implement.
Harvesting staff are paid for what they cut and stack (based on weight), no one earning less than minimum wage. He offers a very open, communicative relationship to all his staff and advises that patience is the key to sanity in this department.
Because of this farm’s steepness, mechanisation is low. Where he can, he does use tractors and he has a Matriarch loader which operates on the zones only. He chose this machine because of its slewing capabilities, quick loading time, and awesome fuel consumption. Nick has a large fleet of tractors and trailers, Landini being his favourite tractor brand because he feels that they are the most robust and have the best longevity.
Two mechanical horses; Volvo FMX’s (designed in Brazil especially for the sugar industry) with interlink trailers which he uses to haul his cane the 30kms to the mill.
Harvesting is done using a cut and stack method, bundled to the zone over a mobile weighbridge. It is then tipped loose onto the zone and loaded with the Matriarch onto the trucks which have load cells. What advice does Nick have for the harvesting side of things? Economies of scale. It will never make sense to own equipment which is not fully utilised. Smaller farmers must team up with others to make sure that equipment is fully utilised thus creating economies of scale that would not be possible individually.
Nick’s two Volvo mechanical horses that he uses to full capacity in hauling cane the 30km trip to Gledhow mill
Nick keeps a young fleet and sells them between 5000 and 6000 hours thus keeping reliability maximised. He also gives the equipment the best chance of survival by making sure that all the staff are fully trained. This is done annually (refresher courses for everyone) by John Deere and Landini and ensures that the staff are fully au fait with their machines thus minimising misuse. This works hand-in-hand with Nick’s ‘bonus cross strategy’ in that the staff are fully trained and know what is acceptable handling of their tools.
Nick has a busy workshop and is building new offices here to centralise operations
He also attends to all small mechanical issues as they arise rather than running a machine until it demands attention. Classic ‘broken window’ strategy which works to do more than preserve the equipment, it also creates an environment that promotes a high level of attention to detail.
While I was interviewing Nick there were extensive road repairs and maintenance being done.
Nick strongly believes in continuous road maintenance. The cost of poor roads on equipment and vehicles far out-weighs the cost of maintaining the roads in a condition that will minimise damage.
Where to from here? Nick is not going to be expanding horizontally given our current insecure political situation, especially with regards to land ownership. Vertical expansion is always an option though ie: if options present that offer a way to expand within his current landownership, he will always be intrigued.
What you be if you weren’t a farmer?
If Nick wasn’t a farmer, he’d be a pilot / business consultant. He has a private pilot’s licence and dreams of flying around helping people with their businesses. Some people are great gardeners, some are great with people, others amazing artists. For Nick, seeing a clear path in a business is what comes easily. It ‘floats his boat’ and he’d love to make a career of it … perhaps that is why he is so good at turning all the opportunities that cross his path into successful businesses … if only he had more hours in a day.
Nick advises that any young sugarcane farmer looking to educate himself should consider the Quest-Africa course, based in the Eastern Cape. It is a one year course (with other options) that would equip a person, inclined towards the outdoors, how to be a survivor. It is also perfect for anyone considering a ‘gap’ year. It covers everything from milking a cow, tying a knot, simple survival, basic electrical, plumbing. On a farm, you need to be a jack of all trades and know how to make a plan with all situations. This course is a great foundation. It will equip anyone who does want to farm (or just survive independently) will valuable skills to make the job easier. Nick places a high value on being a well-rounded farmer who can be resourceful and ‘out-the-box’ in all spheres. Of course, the obvious education for any cane farmer is the Senior Certificate at SASRI. Besides that, a business degree would be handy. Agriculturally, there are so many specialist consultants available to assist farmers but the skills that are not easy to “buy in” are the day to day plumbing and electrical requirements as well as the business advisory ones – so he would advise anyone to upskill themselves in those areas first.
Nick has a right-hand lady, Colleen, who handles all his office details. He oversees it all and handles negotiations and decision-making. When it comes to the paperwork and numbers side of the farming enterprise Nick advises that you have a REALLY good accountant whom you slightly dislike. Experience has taught him that this slight discomfort is healthy. He experienced this first hand when selling a business a few years ago and the mutual negotiator announced that they would know they had a deal when both parties were slightly unhappy. Doing the right thing is never completely comfortable, and neither is doing the wrong thing. Slight discomfort is healthy when it comes to money-matters. At first, this made me laugh out loud but the more I have thought about it, the more sense it has made. I trust you come to that understanding too and learn to embrace that ‘slight discomfort’ confidently. Recent audits lead Nick to advise on the importance of keeping everything in order when it comes to SARS. He advises that you stay clean, stay organised and regularly call for tax clearances (do it once a month on efiling, quick and easy).
Don’t be an island
Neighbourliness is imperative in farming. Being a good neighbour in this environment cannot be over-emphasised. You rely on each other and, simultaneously, give each other freedom which essential in the remote lifestyle farmers live. When Nick is out of touch, his neighbours can make decisions on his farm – giving him confidence in having some freedom for a few days. Symbiotically, Nick would race to a neighbour’s aid as soon as the need arose. On a farm, neighbours become family and maintaining good relationships is paramount.
Pearls of wisdom
- Listen to your agronomist.
- Take soil samples.
- Employ economies of scale.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Believe in your plan. Make a plan and follow it through, test it, implement it, check it and re-evaluate it but always believe in your plan.
- A late rising farmer is starting on the back foot. Get up early and make the very most of every single day. Nick recounts a story he once heard Kingsley Holgate tell about the ‘time of our lives’.
It made me realise how precious time is – ‘life advice’ far beyond farming. Sobering indeed.
As the interview wound to an end, Nick chose to give tribute to some of the people around him:
- His mom, who has just celebrated her 85th birthday, is in very good health, and still lives in the original family house built by his late Dad on Labourdonnais. To her he extends his eternal gratitude that she didn’t sell the farm when Dad passed away – this gave Nick the opportunity to be where he is today. Pictured below is Nick’s Dad.
- He then turned his gratitude to his own awesome family, to whom he attributes his motivation in life; the unconditional support he gets from all of them is his driving force behind every day!!
- A true leader, he then made sure to give credit to his committed and dedicated management staff. He feels that they have all been a huge contribution to where he is today. Whenever possible, Nick has given internal staff promotions and the best possible training available – he sincerely believes it is best to give someone basic swimming lessons before chucking them in the deep end!!! I am very sure all his staff are very happy and confident ‘in the deep’, with this legend at the helm.
So, from feeling like I was dodging a freight train when I first arrived, I left with an understanding of what makes Nick tick : an urgency to be the very best he can be in the limited time he has. Although we can all aspire to emulate that legacy I am not sure that many of us could ever keep up. I am so grateful to have had the time with such a legendary businessman and farmer. We have learnt so many things that will enrich more than just farming practices. And I am left with only my traditional ‘quote’ to round off this interview … this is so tough … all I can think is “this man has no OFF SWITCH!” So, here’s his quote: