|Date interviewed||11 October 2018|
|Date newsletter posted||19 November 2018|
|Distance to the mill||25-30 kms|
|Area under cane||290 hectares under cane (204ha existing + new 86ha on a recently purchased farm)|
|Tonnes to mill||16-18 000 tonnes (New lease farm excluded)|
|Other income streams||Bananas, cattle, sheep, game (Bayala Nyala).|
|Cutting cycle||13 – 13,5 months|
|Av Yield||85t/ha last year, this year about 98t/ha.|
|Av RV||13,3% this year so far. 14.15% last year|
|Best Yield||147 t/h (longer cycle – and it had an RV of 13,5%)|
|Varieties||N57, N36 (both do well) N46 and N23 (both don’t do well)|
Jono Saville – the friendliest voice, right from the first call. This gentleman was such a pleasure to interview and write about. Although he is young (by my standards) he has so much wisdom to share. He is both land owner and farm manager, bringing unique perspectives to the challenges of large scale commercial farming in South Africa. Jono is a dedicated African, who not only loves our land but has inspirational confidence in our future. He is a family man, and together with his beautiful wife, Fran, and their two boys, they move to the beat of their own drum; their individualities were refreshing and engaging.
Fran, Frank, Jono and Austen Saville
Although Jono’s current capacity is managerial for Tamboti Agric, he comes from a long line of farmers – four generations have walked the lands of his home farm in Gingingdlovu. In fact, there’s sugar royalty in his line, with his great grandfather having been the man who started the Entumeni mill.
But, just because you’re born into it, doesn’t mean you have to choose it. Jono preferred the untamed outdoors and began his working life in game ranging; first near Hoedspruit, then Sabie Sabie and then on to the Kruger, which is where he met Fran. When they started their family together, they had to leave the company they both worked for. (Fran is also a game ranger – how exciting is that career choice for a woman!) Jono went back to his ‘sweet roots’ and worked for Crookes Bros in Upper Kearsney for a while. His youthful, nomadic spirit soon dictated a move from there and he ran a tiger fishing operation on the Zambezi river as well as a game farm in Ellisras. If Jono’s CV was caricatured, it would be the most wild, rugged, beautiful picture of Africa – he’s certainly lived an exciting life, in the most spectacular places. Tamboti Ridge has been another piece in this spectacular puzzle.
And still, the picture grows; by the beginning of 2019 Jono, Fran and the boys will be settled down in Gingindlovu as Jono takes over the reins of the family farm.
Jono and Fran have been with Tamboti Agric for 6 years now and shortly after they joined the company a land claim was lodged against the property. The sale was processed, and a lease arrangement agreed upon, but there are only 3 years left of the lease and it will not be renewed. Instead, a joint venture arrangement with the claimants will begin.
The past 6 years have been action-packed and Jono has learnt heaps, mostly in irrigation, which was his intention in moving to the area, but life has thrown him a few other lessons besides.
Having travelled such an assortment of roads to this point, it’s no surprise that Jono supports a diversified profile but what shone through for me was the restraint he showed in this area. This restraint is a wisdom he has picked up along his journey and it now weaves its way through almost all aspects of his life. I can best highlight this by recounting two things Jono said that stuck with me:
- “There’s a lot to be said for the passionate focus of a smaller farmer who has the time to know each stick of cane, name and surname, and thereby get the very best from his land.” We went on to agree that the dilution of large scale farming precludes that intense focus and thereby demands greater quantity to make up for the loss in quality.
- “It’s much more about the jockey than it is about the horse.” By this Jono meant that you cannot judge a horse (farm, and what crop will work on it) without knowing who the jockey (farmer) is. Give a bad horse to a great jockey and sometimes, you get a win (and great odds). Applying this to the topic of diversification is to bring in the element of personalisation – he cannot say what will work for others, besides to say that passion, experience and grit will ultimately determine your success, regardless of the crops you chose.
Jono has chosen to focus on 4 areas of diversification at Tamboti: Cattle, sheep, bananas and nyala breeding. The cattle and sheep are small and feed his passion for farming domestic animals. Bananas have great local market demand and have been rewarding to grow. Game breeding is his real passion and he took me to Bayala Nyala, where I learnt all about the fascinating world of Nyala breeding – more of that later on …
I have a debilitating weakness for Nguni cattle and literally lost all concentration on the interview when we spent some time walking among the gorgeous animals. One cow had just given birth and, as she hurried her new-born to the other side of the herd, we had precious interactions with curious youngsters and cautious mothers.
Jono proudly tells me he is the largest banana farmer in Pongola. He’s also the Chairman of the Association and handles all affairs for the entire local industry. Just when I became suspicious of his new-found pride, he couldn’t hold back the laughter and confessed that he is indeed, the ONLY banana farmer in Pongola (bar one other VERY small farm).
If anyone wants to challenge Jono off his perch, he recommends an appetite for risk. As we all know, the plants are not hardy and storms wreak unimaginable damage. In 2015, a hail and wind storm reduced his crop from R3,6 million to R900K within 45 minutes by destroying over 29 hectares.
The same storm almost blew his house away and damaged about 25% of the cane but, as we all know, sugarcane is remarkably forgiving and robust and the damage there is now a memory whereas the bananas have never fully recovered.
Of course, macs were conspicuous by their absence and Jono explained that he’s not completely convinced whether they’re right for this jockey, on this track. He is going to try them on his track in Ging though, so we’ll watch that space with interest.
AND NOW ONTO SUGAR …
Jono says it’s such a temptation to just replant everything when taking over a new farm but (here’s that wise restraint again) advises that we should carefully consider productivity before doing so. Some old fields might out-perform younger ones so Jono says, “Base replanting decision on performance rather than age.” Every farm is unique, Tamboti Ridge particularly so. Although N46 and N23 are performing really well in most of Pongola, they just aren’t here – they look great but don’t deliver on yield. Strangely, some dry land varieties are working well.
As per industry norms, Jono tries to replant 10% annually but most of the fields are only 5th or 6th ratoon currently so he’s stuck between falling behind the standard replanting schedule (and ending up in a situation where he has to replant everything at once) and replanting unnecessarily. As a compromise, he is currently taking out the poorest performers but it’s less than 10%.
Because the Pongola mill is struggling with capacity currently, there is an incentive of R10 000 per hectare offered to not plant cane. There is active debate around whether this is enough but it’s an interesting scenario nonetheless.
This is rocky country – very unforgiving on ploughs. Which doesn’t really worry Jono as he’s not big on turning the soil over anyway. He prefers to follow minimum tillage methodology and uses a Kengem implement – a ripper with floating vane that ridges at the same time as ripping. It is a little slow going, depending on the soil status but relieving the compaction is an important part of the process and worth spending some time doing. Aerating the soil and simultaneously preserving the life therein is vital to Jono.
Kengem implement similar to the one used at Tamboti
There’s nothing remarkable about Jono’s planting process – he generally buys in seed but also has his own beds. He uses about 12 tonnes of cane per hectare, planting fairly shallow, in double sticks. These are chopped in the furrow, sprayed with Bandit, fertilised with MAP, closed and driven over to “tuck them in”. After that the field is given a good soaking and left to germinate.
Jono feels the ideal harvesting age of cane off this farm is 13 to 13,5 months which means he needs to plant as early as possible, starting in August and, in order to have something to send to the mill when it opens in March, he needs to continue planting right through into January and February.
FERTILISER & SUPPLEMENTS
Being approx. 30kms from Pongola, the irrigation canals used by most farmers do not extend to this farm, so all their water comes directly out of the Pongola river. In the drought this meant that Jono spent so much time in the river attending to thirsty pumps that he contracted Bilharzia. They are also downstream of Pongola’s agricultural hub and this meant that the salt content of the water arriving at Tamboti was excessively high during this period.
The map above shows where Tamboti is, in relation to the bulk of the Pongola farmers and the town centre. It also shows how different the landscape is on this side. Not only is it generally 2 degrees hotter here, the soils are also very different.
Now that the drought is broken, the soils are being flushed but Jono has had to actively intervene in the meantime. He found a product called DeKompakt™ which is a liquid source of calcium and nitrogen that assists in flocculating the soil and reducing surface crusting. Jono says it worked well in his banana orchards as well where the probes were telling him the soil was dry even though he had been irrigating. Exasperated, he dug down and found a slick layer that prevented water from going through the soil. On the coast, granular lime is the obvious answer, but it is a very expensive commodity here in Pongola. Jono found that this liquid alternative worked out more cost efficient.
The mighty Pongola river
Similarly, Jono has had to find a replacement for his preferred CMS in terms of a potassium supplement. When CMS was available, he was applying it to the soil before planting as it is quite a sticky, messy product to administer. The bananas, renown as a potassium-hungry crop, thrived on the CMS, fed through the irrigation system. As CMS isn’t available currently, he’s using conventional, granular alternatives. Jono does warn that CMS can also lead to salt build-ups.
Timing: Jono holds back on fertilising until he is sure that there is enough of a ‘factory’ (indicated by leaf growth) to fully utilise any supplementation. This is especially important when using urea-based products that would otherwise volatilise before the plant has a chance to take in the nitrogen. Jono says the cost-saving when using urea vs LAN is worth the attention to timing and, if you’re at all concerned about volatilisation, you can afford to add lots more urea and thereby ensure adequate supply.
Application: I love ‘old school’ and it’s alive and well on this farm. Jono prefers the good ole tin and rope way of applying fertilisers, for a few reasons:
- Accurate quantities. When he sends the hand teams out to apply the fertilisers, they always come back so much closer to the recommendation than what the tractor-drawn applicators do. Jono often spends too much precious time adjusting equipment to get accurate application rates.
- Accurate placement. The people have far better control over the best placement of the fertiliser than the machinery, especially when dealing with the oddly shaped fields on Tamboti.
- Reduced Compaction. No heavy equipment in-field when people are applying the fertilisers.
- Although labour can be problematic at times, Jono can’t turn away from the fact that employment is vital, with each employed person often supporting up to 12 family members.
- Cost-savings. Again, even though labour can be seen as an expensive line in the budget, when compared to the cost of equipment, it is often justifiable. Fertilising with the tin and rope costs R100 per hectare which didn’t sound too expensive to me …
Last year, 90% of the farm was fertilised by hand and this year, they’ve already covered 90 hectares, 65 of which were done by hand.
After many years of trial and error, Jono has developed a recipe that he is now comfortable with and uses consistently. It’s a 3:2:1 mix of Metribusin, Diuron, Paraquat on ratoon cane and Metribusin, Diuron, Roundup (also 3:2:1) on plant cane. He applies this one week after cutting or earlier in the case of planted fields. He has found that this works well with the minimum tillage methods he prefers, by knocking back anything that’s there before the cane even starts to shoot.
Here again, he prefers a labour-intensive strategy and recently bought 2 electric knapsacks – now that they’ve overcome the initial teething problems, and everyone is clear on how they work, he is happy with the system. There is a permanent spot-spraying team who keep the property clear throughout the year. Parthenium (aka Demoina bosse) is a huge problem at the moment. This weed has come down through Swaziland and keeps the team busy.
This has been Jono’s greatest learning area during his 6 years here in Pongola. Probes, pumps, power and pressure have all been subjects in the Irrigation classroom. Here are some of his learnings:
- Don’t allow ‘cost-saving’ schemes to derail your irrigation requirements. Eg: Ruralflex, the cost-savings initiative offered by Eskom, isn’t worth factoring into your calculations. Of greater importance than which time-rate you are using is whether or not your crop is getting the quantity of water it needs, when it needs it.
- Moisture probes and a proper recommended schedule resulting from the data is valuable. He has caught many irrigation issues that he would have missed, to the detriment of the crop, if he didn’t have probes advising what was happening beneath the surface.
- Every farm (and sometimes every field) is unique and requires individual analysis to figure out what will work best for the crop it supports. Jono has learnt that the shallow, rocky soils across most of this farm need less water more often and he has therefore reduced his cycles to a maximum of 5 days, with 3,5 days being preferable across some of the poorest soils. One field in particular is so rocky that even a jack-hammer couldn’t clear the way for the intended probe but Jono watches it carefully and last year it gave him 110 tonnes/hectare of high quality cane.
- You’ll be surprised how little water cane can thrive on – again, we hear from a Top Farmer about the common mistake of over-irrigating.
N57 @ 10 months old, being used for seedcane. Barely discernable is one of the Senter 360, 3,8 hect pivots.
When Jono arrived at Tamboti, the majority of irrigation was drag lines. He slowly started changing this to semi-permanents and, in 2015, started installing 3,8-hectare centre pivots. He now has Nine of these water-driven babies who can put down 22-24 ml in 16 hours and require only pressure of 3 bars at the centre. They are not only electricity-savers, they also allow greater flexibility, in terms of scheduling and placement in this hilly part of Pongola. He has developed a strong relationship with the supplier, Senter 360, who also provides excellent back up service. Besides the small pivots, he also has a 7,8 hectare rig over a field of N23 but it’s not doing well, “More to do with the unsuitable variety than the irrigation,” says Jono. The plan is to place a 20-hectare pivot in this valley, pictured below, where the soils are deeper and retain moisture a little better.
As far as drip irrigation goes, Jono says it requires intense management. If you have the capacity for that, it’s a brilliant system.
“I ripen flat out,” reports Jono, ‘being about 30kms from the mill, it is important that we maximise RV.” His approach is two-pronged; implementing long dry-off periods, especially in good soils, and spraying ripeners. His average Relative RV last year was 14,15% so his strategy is definitely working. He stays current with the latest ripening agents and piggy-back options. He has recently trialled Moddus alone and also a Moddus / Fusilade piggy-back. There was no significant difference between the results but Jono points out that the only truly reliable comparison would be to test both options in one field. This would limit the array of other variables that can affect RV.
Although Moddus is not mill-subsidised at present, the flexibility it allows him is valuable; he applies it 10 weeks before anticipated harvest date and continues irrigation. About 6 to 8 weeks (depending on soils) before harvest, he stops irrigating but if he runs into any delivery issues, the cane will fare better if it’s only had Moddus applied.
Lately, Jono has started using the Venturi sprayers to apply the ripener, with great success. He also uses the sprayers in the pivot fields.
Beautiful Pongola with the Jozini dam in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains
HARVESTING AND MECHANISATION
As is standard across all of Pongola, Jono harvests into windrows and loads with a tri-wheeler. The only difference is that he isn’t loading directly into 30 tonne trucks for the mill. Here, they load into 5 tonne trailers that move the cane to a loading zone. The reason is topography – the land is simply too steep and rocky to take his linked truck into the field. Of course, this saves him a bit of compaction and, in this regard, the farm has recently bought a Matriarch slewing loader. This will help tremendously in alleviating ratoon damage caused during loading.
Although most of the Tamboti tractors are 2-wheel drive, Jono’s personal preference is for 4-wheel drive as the wheel slip in-field not only damages the crop, it can also get expensive on tyres. Besides that, “The 4-wheelers are just far more efficient,” says Jono.
Jono also believes in minimising traffic in the fields (sounds like he’ll be moving to cut and stack when back on his own farm). He works hard to ensure that whatever equipment he does run, is as new and reliable as possible, “Worrying about repairs and when the next break-down will happen is counter-productive. If you can, keep the fleet new and make sure you choose a brand that has reliable and efficient backup service as close to your farm as possible. You’ll save money in the long run.”
PESTS AND DISEASES
There’s not a whole lot to worry about with such a short growing cycle but, with carry over cane, it is sometimes necessary to spray for Eldana. This will be a last resort for Jono as he does his best to avoid pesticides and the adverse effect they have on the environment.
Thrips have been a challenge in the past. He applies Bandit to the cane billets when planting but has also had to use it on ratoon cane; he sprays it on to the stalks of the cane, taking care to ensure that the chemical is applied under shade as it is sunlight-sensitive.
Environmental well-being is high on Jono’s list of priorities
At the mention of this word, a dark cloud forms over Jono’s head … not unexpected, given the fact that this man is a born outdoorsman, but he says he really doesn’t mind the planning side of admin work, in fact, he thrives on it. It’s the mundane and time-consuming reports and paperwork that gets him down. In a perfect world, he’d have someone to assist with these tasks so that he could spend more time farming. A tool that does brighten his mood is CanePro – he has used it extensively in the Cane operation and would like to expand its use even more; there are so many facets that could add real value to the business.
An important topic in a business that employs people wherever and whenever it can. That, coupled with the fact that this is a large and diverse operation, means there’s only one thing to base your people management on: TRUST. Jono admits that he’s been burnt and knows he will be burnt again but he still entrusts his competent staff with substantial responsibility. There are 72 people in total. Everyone is very clear on what is expected of them and when. The relationship is one of give and take. As can be seen in the pic below, everyone seems to be more than happy with their role in making Tamboti the success it is.
Bayala Nyala team: Mduduzi, Sylvestser, Jono, Siyabonga & Amon
This sector is undoubtedly the ‘favourite child’; Jono literally lights up in the environment. Bayala Nyala is half an hour’s drive from Tamboti Ridge, on the other side of Mkuze. Jono has started it from scratch. The owners managed to secure the 300 hectare, fully fenced property at a fantastic price about 2 years ago. Since then, Jono has been renovating the buildings, erecting internal fences and managing the breeding. Fran, Jono’s wife, handles the genetics which is a fascinating business: the goal takes 5 years to accomplish and entails a really impressive male (in this case, it’s a R850 000 bull with 31 inch horns) producing progeny that is 100% his genetic make up … suffice to say there’s a lot of incest … but, when this ‘perfect’ female is produced she is paired with a new bull, also a near perfect specimen, and their offspring enable the project to start realising returns.
Here is the R850 000 man of the moment. He was frustratingly camera shy, so this was the best pic he’d allow – and I think he’s showing me what he thinks of paparazzi! Shifting your focus to his horns, you’ll see that they are capped; this is to preserve their length from being eroded any further – he’s already managed to rub 3/8 of an inch off his crowning glory which isn’t good for his pedigree.
Many of the females are heavily pregnant.
Bayala Nyala is an incredibly special place and Jono feels most comfortable in this sector of the business. This fever tree forest is so beautiful and serene that Jono has dubbed the site ‘his cathedral’.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
I’m sure it’s obvious that I LOVED my visit to Tamboti Ridge. Not only is Jono a wise and experienced farmer, he’s also authentic. He’s confident, not only in his capabilities but also in the situation around him. His family are the greatest factor in this security as Fran and the boys give him purpose and support. I also loved hearing about his belief in the future of our country, which was cemented when he recently attended a stud game auction earlier this year. It was held on Cyril Ramaphosa’s farm near Warmbaths and Cyril spoke to the +/- 400 farmers in attendance on the day. His eloquent, confident and assured message inspired Jono to continue being hopeful that our country will thrive. His message explained that we’ve come through a Revolution and the dust still needs to settle. That will take much sacrifice from all people. Givers and takers need to find middle ground. Government needs to stand firm on corruption and land grabs, both of which won’t be tolerated under Cyril’s rule. He explained that there are over 2 million hectares of government-owned land that will be used in land redistribution.
Jono explains that greed and fear, on both sides of the ‘fence’, are real and unbelievably dangerous elements in our fragile democracy. Greed displayed by expansive land owners is just as dangerous as greed displayed by those with nothing to lose. Fear is a political tactic used by unscrupulous agents and should be carefully analysed before you take it on board eg: social media propagates stories of farm murders and land grabs that are very often built on distortions of the truth for personal gain. Jono’s advice is simple: without living under a rock, filter the information you allow to affect your purpose. Believe in the good of South Africans and the future we can have.
That being said, he reminds us that farming is not for the feint-hearted. It’s a life-style choice that feeds anything but your bank balance. If money floats your boat, stay away from agriculture.
The world average age of farmers is currently 60!! Yes, SIXTY! That tells me that agricultural challenges are certainly not limited to our shores alone.
Another interesting thing Jono explained to me was the effect of an increasingly urbanised society. Currently, South Africa is considered an urbanised society, with over 60% of the population living in cities. So, generally, who’s left in rural SA? Unfortunately, that often ends up being the ones who can’t hold down urban employment; the ‘mischievous’ degenerates. These people find their way into the agricultural labour pool. Obviously, with this ingredient, things can go wrong, and the media is quick to report, in full uncensored colour, the consequences of this situation, without adequately reporting on the causes. And so, the situation is soon spiralled out of control until we are left believing that we are in some sort of insurmountable racial/class war. Instead, we can see the situation for what it is: a third world African country struggling to find its feet after a drawn-out revolution – there is hope, but first we have to address our own greed, fear and find a purpose that propels South Africa forward.
And, after that weighty conclusion, here’s my favourite picture of the day; Jono, posing for the camera. If all you future SugarBytes farmers could please practice, I’m on my way …
I found a quote that I think works well for Jono: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” (Peter Drucker) When we find so many people prophesying doom and gloom, it almost makes me cry with joy when I find someone more prone to actively making a difference.
Thank you Jono, Fran, Austen and Frank for welcoming me into your beautiful home and special family. I look forward to all our farmers enjoying your inspiration and encouragement.