Date interviewed 6 June 2017
Date newsletter posted  31 October 2017
Farmer Michiel Jacobsz
Farm Afsaal
Mill Pongola
Area under cane 260 hectares
Other crops/businesses None
Distance from coast 150 kms
Dominant Soil type Various but mainly high clay
Cutting cycle 12 to 13 months
Record yield 167 tons per hectare. Plant cane, 14 months. N36.
Record RV 16% (N30)
Av Yield 110 to 112 tons
Av RV 13 to 13.3 %
Varieties N23, N40, N41, N53 (new, but looking good), N36, N30

Well folks, if you’re looking for sneaky tricks and revolutionary methodology, this is not the article for you. Michiel Jacobsz is as traditional and uncomplicated as they come. In fact, after digging around in all areas, I actually looked at him and said, “I don’t understand why you are in the Top 25 – you don’t do anything special!” He agreed with me … how was I going to produce a Top Farmer article on someone so average? It wasn’t adding up. Michiel’s tonnages and RV’s are brilliant – why, what am I missing? I started wishing that my Afrikaans was better … maybe it’s the language barrier … what am I going to do!? I wasn’t leaving empty-handed, that’s for sure! I had come all the way to Pongola for this! After a few more hours together, it hit me: there’s incredible value in doing only the basics, but doing them perfectly. Kind of like the tortoise and the hare. While the hare runs all over and is distracted by all sorts of fancy footwork, the tortoise simply puts one foot in front of the other and focuses on the finish line. Michiel is successful because he does what he does properly. No frills, no extras, just focused excellence on the basics.

So – what are “the basics”? Oddly enough, it’s T.L.C., which is good for people AND farms it turns out.

TIME: “Sugar cane farming is easy but you have to be here all the time,” says Michiel, “you have to check on it constantly, especially the irrigation.

LEARN: “I am not scared to ask. I have a very helpful neighbour who helps me a lot. I even ask my wife’s advice.”   (Marietjie is a freelance herbicide researcher who used to work for ARC.) “I am always eager to learn from everyone – that’s important.” Michiel is also a part of a local Study Group, and recommends joining one to all other farmers – he really takes full advantage of any and all opportunities to learn.

CHECK: A theme throughout Michiel’s interview was his checking – soils, moisture, weeds, diseases – the list is endless. Other farmers have referred to it as ‘feet in the field’; it’s nothing new, but here, you realise that it is the foundation of success. “At 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, when the last thing you want to do is go and check that the irrigation has been moved, check anyway. It’s the difference between average and great.”

Michiel spends about 80% of his time in the fields, checking.

Michiel’s humility is also refreshing. The first thing he made clear, when I arrived, is that he did not own the land he farms. He manages six farms belonging to Engkie Scheepers. After arriving here in 2001, Michiel worked together with Mr Scheepers for about 5 years, and has been on his own for about the last 10 years. The mutual admiration between these two men was palpable when I was lucky enough to meet both Mr and Mrs Scheepers in their beautiful garden.

The Scheepers’ garden was Eden, I am convinced. The orchids were spectacular. But, not too many months before my visit, this area had been a wasteland, devastated by the drought. “Yoh yoh yoh, I never want to go through that ever in my life again. It was unbelievable,” Michiel shakes his head, clearly changed by the frightening experience. Every drop of water became precious and carefully allocted. Michiel decided, wisely, not to plant certain fields. This saved him from loosing that crop and it gave him water to give to other fields. The worst of it was the complete helplessness he felt. All he could do was pray. And, it seems, God heard because the Pongola I saw, looked blessed. I always ask the farmers to show me their favourite spot on their farms. Here is Michiel’s – a spot where the majestic fig trees dip their branches into the Pongola River.

Fertilisers: This part of farming probably receives most of Michiel’s attention. He makes all his fertiliser decisions based on the results of accurate soil sampling. He was sending his samples to the USA and Nelspruit for cross checking but, more recently, since SASRI’s laboratory upgrade, is satisfied with local analyses. So, he doesn’t just apply what he thinks the fields require, he asks them, every time they are replanted. And then he orders the mix from the suppliers as opposed to mixing himself.

LAN-base is non-negotiable when it comes to nitrogen supplements. During the drought, he used an organic product from Atlas. It is a slow-release, partly organic fertiliser that he believes helped significantly through the drought. Another thing he did during the drought that proved to be a good decision was to apply extra doses of Abacus. We have heard a lot about split applications from other farmers and Michiel also does this, and recommends that all farmers, interested in the accurate supply of exactly what the plants need, follow suite. And once again – CHECK! Michiel keeps all the empty fertiliser bags as a check that the right applications were administered on the right fields.

Herbicides: Besides an initial long-term spray for Kweek (Cynodon) which Michiel NEVER skips – he says that’s just suicide – Michiel chooses to spray each field individually ie: he assesses the challenges and then applies products formulated for the weed concerned. It requires effort and time but is definately worth it. Michiel’s wife, Marietjie, conducts trials, shown in the pic below. Michiel observes, and learns from, these.

Pests: Eldana and RSD are not the greatest enemies on these farms. Eldana prefers N26 & N47 so, if Michiel has those varieties growing, he pays special attention but most of his focus is on fighting Orange rust, for which he uses Abacus.  The tractor sprayer is used, at the 4 to 6 weeks stage, and then again, 4 to 6 weeks later. Usually, he waits for evidence of rust before spraying but, when it comes to the rust-prone N41, he sprays whether or not there is evidence of the disease.

Ripening: Michiel has been using ripeners for a long time, before the helicopter sprayers were contracted by the mill. He therefore has a Ventury system which he can use when the airborne services are not available. He makes use of Ethapon, Fusilade and Moddus, following field-specific recommendations given by the PURest app. His advice in this area is to continue irrigating, even after ripening. This reduces stress on the plant and achieves better results.

Michiel is a big man but was dwarfed by his massive cane.

Checking the tip of the ripened cane.

Harvesting: Currently, Michiel follows a very standard practice of in-field loading with Bells.

A good harvest.

As with most of the Pongola farms I visited, the mill is within sight.

Irrigation: Although sprayers are the dominant irrigation tool on these farms, Michiel is interested in drip irrigation. Should this interest develop, part of the plan would be to purchase Matriarch machines and alter the row spacing. He is excited to see the results of less ratoon compaction and better water conservation that would come with these changes. Currently Michiel makes extensive use of moisture probes, installed by Irricheck. He never relies on these though and is always inspecting himself. Nothing can beat a good scratch in the ground when it comes to reassuring a Pongola farmer that his irrigation plan is on track. Something that Michiel has learnt recently is that he doesn’t need as much water as he thought. Historically, he watered 24 hours a day but, after attending an irrigation symposium, delivered by the highly respected Dr Chris Barnard from the Fertigation Academy in Rustenberg, he now follows a 5 + 5 + 8 programme in summer and a 4 + 4 + 4 programme in winter.

Too much water is also something to watch out for. There is one field Michiel has had to work hard to drain because it has a tendency to become water-logged.

Here you can see the water draining from this field, into the communal furrow.

Michiel has many farming interests, including pigeon racing, Dexters (which he gets a good milk supply from), miniature horse stud, as well as lamb and beef for home consumption.

And then Michiel announced: “My Engels is nou op!” He had done all he could and the rest was up to me to interpret.

So, what pearls of wisdom did I collect for you on this farm? It can all be summed up in two words: Simple excellence.

Sugar farming needn’t be complicated. If you approach every single task with intent and focus on delivering your best, the crop will reward you.

En hier kom die Afrikaanse weergawe:

Datum van onderhoud 6 Junie 2017
Publikasie datum van nuusbrief 27 Oktober 2017
Boer Michiel Jacobsz
Plaas Afsaal
Suikermeule Pongola
Area onder suikerriet 260 hektaar
Ander gewasse / besighede Geen
Aftand van kus af 150 km
Dominante grondsoort Verskeidenheid, maar hoofsaaklik kleigrond
Kapsiklus 12 tot 13 maande
Rekord opbrengs 167 ton per hektaar (14 maande – N36)
Gemiddelde belasbare waarde (RV) 16% (N30)
Gemiddelde opbrengs 110 tot 112 ton/ha
Gemiddelde belasbare waarde (RV) 13 tot 13.3 %
Variëteite N23, N40, N41, N53 (nuut,maar lyk belowend), N36, N30

Wel mense, indien julle opsoek is na slinkse streke of revolusionêre boerdery metodes, is hierdie definitief nie die artikel vir julle nie. Michiel Jacobsz is so tradisioneel en ongeklompliseerd soos ‘n mens kan kry, inteendeel, nadat ek al in verskeie areas rond gesnuffel het, het ek na hom gekyk en gesê: ”Ek kan nie verstaan hoe jy in die Top 25 opgeëindig het nie – jy doen niks uitsonderlik nie!”.  Hy stem so ewe saam …… nou wonder ek hoe ek ‘n Top Boer artikel gaan skryf oor iemand wat so gemiddeld is? Dit het net nie sin gemaak nie.  Michiel se tonnemaat en belasbare waarde (RV) is briljant –  ek wonder hoekom en wat kyk ek dan mis? Wat gaan ek doen?  Ek was nie van plan om met leë hande hier weg te stap nie. Ek het nie onnodig so ver Pongola toe gery nie nie! Na ‘n paar ure saam, tref dit my tussen die oë:  dit verg nie baie om die basiese reg te doen nie, maar die uitdadigings is om die basiese perfek te doen. Dit is amper soos die haas en skilpad kinderstorie.  Terwyl haas oral rond hardloop en sy aandag deur allerhande dinge langs die pad afgelei word, sit ou skilpad maar net een voet voor die ander en konsentreer heeltyd op die wenpaal.  Michiel is suksesvol in wat hy doen, want hy doen alles deeglik.  Geen fieterjasies, geen ekstras, net gefokus op die uitnemendheid van die basiese.  Só – wat is die “basiese”?

TYD: “Suikerriet boerdery is eintlik maklik.  Jy moet net die hele tyd daar wees.”sê Michiel.  Jy moet voortdurend jou oog op alle aspekte hou, veral op die besproeiing.

LEERGIERIG: “Ek is nie bang om te vra as ek iets nie weet nie. Ek het ‘n baie behulpsame buurman en soms vra ek selfs my vrou se advies”. (Mariejie is tans ‘n vryskut navorser wat voorheen vir die LNR gewerk het). “Ek is altyd gretig om by iemand iets te leer – dis baie belangrik”.  Michiel is ook deel van ‘n plaaslike studiegroep en beveel alle boere aan om deel te word van só ‘n groep.  Hy gryp enige kans aan om te leer.

VERIFIKASIE:  Die tema regdeur die onderhoud met Michiel was sy konstante verifiëring van die grond, die voggehalte, die siektes, die lys is eindeloos. Ander boere verwys hierna as “voete in die veld”.  Dis niks nuuts nie, maar hier vorm dit die grondslag vir sy sukses. “Om op ‘n Sondagmiddag 3 uur, die besproeiing te gaan kontroleer,  is laaste ding  waarvoor jy lus het en dis alles behalwe lekker, maar doen dit in elk geval, want dit is wat die verskil maak tussen ‘n gemiddelde en ‘n hoogs suksesvolle boerdery.”

Michiel spandeer omtrent 80% van sy tyd in die suikerrietlande, besig met een of ander waarneming.

Michiel se nederigheid is opvallend. Die eerste ding wat hy duidelik gemaak het toe ek hier gearriveer het, is dat hy nie die eienaar van suikerrietpersele is nie.  Hy bestuur 6 persele wat aan Engkie Scheepers behoort. Met sy aankoms in Pongola in 2001, het Michiel eers saam met Mnr Scheepers vir die eerste 5 jaar gewerk en geleer, maar die laaste 10 jaar neem hy die boerdery besluite op sy eie.  Daar is ‘n defnitiewe tasbare wedersydse respek tussen hierdie 2 boere.   Ek was gelukkig genoeg om Mnr en Mev Scheepers in hulle pragtuin te kon ontmoet.

Ek is oortuig dat die Scheepers se tuin, Eden was. Die orgidieë was skouspelagtig.  Net ‘n paar maande voor my kuier, hoor ek, was hierdie stuk aarde ‘n droë woestyn as gevolg van die droogte. “Jô, jô, jô, ek wil nooit weer in my lewe daardeur gaan nie. Dit was ongelooflik,” Michiel skud sy kop, duidelik nog geskok oor die skrikwekkende ondervinding.  Elke druppel water was baie kosbaar en is baie oordeelkundig gebruik. Michiel se wyse besluit om nie al die landerye aan die begin van die seisoen te plant nie, het gesorg dat hy nie die hele oes verloor het nie.   Hy toe net genoeg water beskikbaar gehad om die bestaande suikerriet aan die gang te hou tot oestyd. Die ergste vir hom was die totale hulpelose gevoel wat hy gehad het.  Al wat hy kon doen was om aan te hou bid. God het definitief die boere se gebede verhoor, want die Pongola wat ek beleef, is geseënd.

Ek vra altyd die boere om hulle gunsteling plek op die plaas vir my te wys. Hier is Michiel s’n – ‘n plek met majestieuse vyebome op die wal van die Pongolarivier.

Kunsmis: Hierdie gedeelte van die boerdery kry baie van Michiel se aandag. Hy maak al sy bemesting besluite op grond van die resultate van sy akkurate grondmonsters. Hy het altyd die monsters na Amerika gestuur en dan daarna na Nelspruit om die resultate te kon bevestig.  Deesdae stuur hy dit net na die nuut opgegradeerde SASRI laboratorium. Hy is nou heeltemal tevrede met die plaaslike analises. Hy doen dus nie bemesting op grond van wat hy dink die plant gaan benodig nie, maar vra die kundiges vir raad voordat ‘n nuwe land geplant en bemes word. Hy bestel dan die regte mengsel van die verskaffer instede daarvan om dit homself te meng

‘n Basis van KAN is nie onderhandelbaar as dit by stikstof aanvullings kom nie. Gedurende die droogte, het hy ‘n organiese produk van Atlas gebruik. Dit is ‘n stadig vrystellende, gedeeltelike organiese kunsmis wat hy glo baie gedurende die droogte gehelp het.

‘n Ander baie wyse besluit geneem gedurende die droogte geneem het, was om ekstra Abacus gedurende hierdie tydperk toe te dien.

Ons het al baie gehoor van boere wat kunsmis toedienings verdeel en Michiel doen dit ook. Hy beveel aan dat alle boere dit doen en sodoende kunsmis vir die plante gee wanneer hulle dit benodig. En weereens – VERIFIKASIE!   Michiel hou al die leë kunsmissakke om te kontroleer dat die regte kunsmismengsel op die regte landerye aangewend is.

Onkruiddoders: Buiten vir die aanvanklike langtermyn beheer maatreël vir kweek (Cynodon) wat Michiel NOOIT oorslaan nie (hy sê dis net selfmoord vir die plaas), verkies hy om elke land se onkruidproleem te individueel te hanteer.  Hy assesseer die uitdagings vir land en spuit dit dan met die regte produk vir die spesifieke onkruid. Dit vat baie moeite en tyd, maar dis definitief die moeite werd in die einde. Soms word ook onkruiddoderproewe in sy suikerriet gedoen om nuwe middels te evalueer.

Peste: Eldana en RSD is nie ‘n groot proleem op die plaas nie. Eldana verkies N26 & N47, so indien Michiel wel hierdie variëteite plant, is hy ekstra oplettend vir hierdie plae. Sy grootste fokus is egter om Oranje roes te beveg met die gebruik van Abacus.  Dit word toegedien tussen 4-6 weke na plant en dan weer 4-6 weke later. Gewoonlik wag hy totdat hy tekens van die roes op die riet sien.  Indien hy egter die variëteit N41 plant, wat geneig is roes te kry, spuit hy voorkomend.

Rypmakers: Michiel gebruik rypmakers al vir ‘n geruime tyd, voor die helikopterbespuiting   deur die meule uit gekontrakteer is.  Hy maak ook gebruik van ‘n Ventury sisteem wat hy kan gebruik, indien helikopter nie beskikbaar is nie. Hy dien aanvanklik Ethapon, Fusilade of Moddus toe, gevolg deur ‘n land-spesifieke aanbeveling deur gebruik te maak van die PURest selfoon toepassing. Sy advies in hierdie spesifieke area is om aan te hou met besproeiing, selfs na die gebruik van rypmaker.  Dit voorkom vogstres en beter oprengs resultate word so verkry.

Michiel is ‘n groot man, maar het soos ‘n dwerg gelyk langs sy massiewe suikerriet.

Die groeipunt van riet wat met rypmaker gespuit is, word hier getoets

Oes: Op die oomblik volg Michiel die standaard praktyk. Riet word in die land gelaai met ‘n Bell rietlaaier.

‘n Goeie oes.

Soos met die meeste van my plaas besoeke, is die suikerriet meule altyd in sig.

Besproeiing: Alhoewel daar tans slegs van oorhoofse sprinkel-besproeiing gebruik gemaak word, dink Michiel daaraan om oor te skakel na drup-besproeiing.  Hy sien uit om die resultate van verminderde kompaksie op sy opbrengs waar te neem met die gepaardgaande water besparing. Op die oomblik maak Michiel grootliks gebruik van vogmeters wat deur Irricheck geïnstalleer is. Hy maak egter nooit ten volle staat hierop nie en doen self inspeksie van die grondvog. Niks kan ooit by ‘n goeie krap in die grond kom om dié Pongola boer te verseker dat sy besproeiing in plek is nie. Dis iets wat Michiel maar onlangs geleer het en besef nou dat hy nie soveel water nodig gehad het soos hy gedink het nie. Histories, het hy 24 uur per dag water gegee, maar nadat hy ‘n beproeiingssimposium deur die hoogs gerespekteerde, Dr Chris Barnard, van die Fertigation Academy in Rustenburg bygewoon het, volg hy nou ‘n 5 + 5 + 8 program in die somer en ‘n 4 + 4 + 4 program in winter.

Te veel water is ook iets om voor op te let. Daar is een land wat Michiel voortdurend moet dreineer aangesien dit ‘n neiging het op te versuip.

Hier sien ons die water wat vanaf die veld dreineer in gemeenskaplike slote.

Michiel het baie ander boerdery belangstellings, soos wedvlug duiwe, dexter beeste (waarvandaan hy ‘n goeie melkvoorraad kry), ‘n miniatuur perdestoet, asook skape beeste vir huishoudelike gebruik.

So, wat is pêrels van wysheid wat ek op hierdie plaas gevind het? Dit kan alles opgesom word in twee woorde: Eenvoudige uitnemendheid.

Suikerriet boerdery het nie nodig om gekompliseerd te wees nie. Indien jy elke taak voor die hand met die regte fokus benader en net jou beste lewer, sal die oes jou vergoed.