The Adri/eans are amazing men. Adrian Reynolds is a champion of the environment and Adrean Naudé is a champion of farmers. My mind is so full of valuable and interesting information to share with you I am practically shaking as I start to put it all down … let’s go – starting with Adrian Reynolds …

It took more than one prompt to get Adrian to communicate with me. He eventually came back to me and said there’s no ways that he belongs among the other Top Farmers SugarBytes has been presenting, but, if I’d like to hear about his story and passions, I am welcome. I can’t turn down a good mystery so I beetled up the N2 to discover why Adrian thought he didn’t belong. Turns out – he totally belongs – but his focus is no longer solely on sugar cane farming so he feels he does not deserve accolades with regards to this crop.  We spent the morning talking about his true passion: restoring health to the lands he has been blessed with for so long. I can think of few better things to discuss and so here is an overview of his operation. For those of you who prefer hardcore focus on sugar, stay with us: I visited Adrean Naudé and those details are also in this article. This is a long one but completely worth the time you give it.

Date interviewed 1 August 2017
Date newsletter posted 8 December 2017
Farmer Adrian Reynolds
Farm Sunhill Farm
Mill Gledhow
Total farm size 100 hectares
Area under cane 450 hectares (including leased farms)
Other crops/businesses Macadamias (10 hectares mature + 15 hectares young trees with another 25 ha to be planted over the next two years),

Litchis (10 hectares)

Grass – Leased

Quarry – Leased

Palm trees


Distance from coast Approx 3kms
Latitude 29.45’ South
Soils Alluviums and Dolerites mainly

History:  Adrian was “born into sugar”: his mother was the stepdaughter of the late Rutherford Hulett. The first Hulett mill, built in 1903, is located on the family farm, which is currently being developed as the world-renown Palm Lakes Family Estate (130 hectares). This original family farm was known as Wagon Drift because of the drift (river) the wagons had to get through to get their cane loads to the mill. Adrian grew up on this farm.

Adrian’s farm, which he bought from his Dad in 1982, borders this property. He has since bought additional farms that now jointly comprise Sunhill Farms. Interestingly enough, this farm is perfectly placed 16 kms from both mills (Gledhow and Darnall).

While working on the family farms, Adrian was very focused on sugar cane but when he purchased his own farm, he tried a few alternate crops and had great success with granadillas and paw paws. The business thrived, with much of the crop being exported. Then, on 29th July 1993, disaster struck. A hail storm of epic proportions pummelled the area. All the fruit crops were devastated beyond belief. There wasn’t a leaf left. It looked like a war zone. So, Adrian decided to give away the markets he had and close that chapter. He has never grown another paw paw or granadilla since.

The sugar cane, being the wonderfully hardy and forgiving crop that it is, survived the storm and Adrian continued on, eventually adding macadamias and litchis to the land. That was 20 years ago and slowly these two crops have proven to be more challenging, exciting and neighbour-friendly (no “black snow”) than sugar cane. Therefore, they have become the focus on Sunhill Farm.

This is why Adrian feels he doesn’t belong among SugarBytes’ Top sugar cane farmers; because he no longer prioritises sugar. So, how did he end up in the Top 10 for the Gledhow area? Adrian diverts those accolades to local extension officer, Adrean Naudé’s door. While Adrian keeps his eyes on the fruit, Adrean’s advice keeps the sugar cane division healthy. And that is why we decided to include a profile on this knowledgeable and supremely helpful gentleman in this article.

Restoration: Looking ahead, Adrian’s emphasis is fixed on restoring the land to its natural, healthy, balanced state. He has put phenomenal effort into doing the right thing for the environment. Farming profits can sometimes shorten our eyesight and Adrian was in this trap. He is now very passionate about restoration and excited about the positive spin off it has had. His lessons teach us that we can keep our eyes on profits AND sustainability simultaneously.

His correlation between these two factors happened a long time ago, when the family farms were still being irrigated. They had 127 hectares under irrigation. Planting happened with little regard for green belts, some water courses were even completely removed. Adrian wishes he could blame previous generations for the damage done but humbly confesses to being a part of it. The Umhlali river was used for irrigation and it was becoming a problem. It was, on average, only about 300mm deep. They were constantly dredging it to keep the impellors free of mud. The foot valves were extended twice, by a metre each time, but all this did was impact the pump curves (for every metre a pump is dropped, the head of the irrigation unit loses 10m) Soon, irrigation simply became unviable and they packed it up in 2001.  When Adrian thought about the fact that, when the Shaka’s Kraal sugar mill was built many decades ago, the equipment was taken off the ships, waiting out at sea, and brought to the mill site on barges up the same river, he realised how much had changed and that they were on a slippery downhill slope. Some responsibility for the current water situation had to fall at the farmers’ feet. He decided to do what he could to right the wrongs, starting with an aggressive reforestation programme. He developed a propagation nursery that produced 8000 trees in 40 to 60 litre bags and began to pull back the farmlands on the river bank by 50m and re-establish water courses. On the riverbanks and water courses, he planted trees and other indigenous vegetation.

The project has brought more than just pleasure, it has brought life! The river now flows 2 ½ metres deeper and the waterways are healthy. Even through the drought these last few years, Sunhill Farm always had plenty of water. There’s a health to the operation that had all but left before.

Lately, in an effort to attend to the other side of the river, Adrian has extended his programme to neighbouring farms – this way the Umhlali river is restored from both sides. For those of you who feel that an undertaking such as this is just too exhausting, be heartened by the fact that it doesn’t have to be: following the big planting they’ve recently undergone, the nursery has closed down and while Adrian continues to return 5m of farmland to restoration each year (over 10 hectares has been ‘given back’ so far), his vertical farming efforts intensify and you don’t need to take on Adrian’s route entirely. The point is that there needs to be a healthy balance.  Trouble starts when we cross the line and immediate greed supersedes long-term sustainability.

This map shows the extent of the reforestation undertaken by Adrian. Phenomenal. He is successfully restoring about 2 km of the Umhlali, mostly on both banks, and about 1 ½ km on the Tete river, mostly on one bank. Planting trees is one thing, keeping the aliens out is another thing altogether. Hence, he does not claim to have fulfilled his obligation to the environment and keeps the project going by clearing and planting seasonally.

Besides restoration, Adrian is also focused on minimising chemical use. He admits it is a struggle but they try to use organic fertiliser and herbicides where possible. He has also created three composting sites which are very interesting:

Once the hay has composted well, it is used to add micro-organisms to the soil around the base of each tree. Here Adrian shows how healthy the soil is looking since they started this Organic Fertiliser operation.

Although this intensity may not be practical on a very large cane crop, the lessons about using organic matter and restoring soil health are important. Adrian has seen this in the reduced occurrence of disease on his farm. The healthy environment has positive spin offs for the ecology of all plants and animals.

Insects too … on this farm, anthills are shown great respect. The subsoil cities these ‘gateways’ protect are valuable. No one touches an anthill, when planting, cutting, fertilising … nothing.

Bees are another insect that is valued here. Another 60 hives have just been added to the throng. Some of these will come and go depending on the pollination requirements of the farm. But all the additional aloes and natural bush make this a happy bee retreat.

Adrian just wants to inspire other farmers to restore their land and rivers. It doesn’t need to be expensive and just requires small steps in the right direction. A consciousness around the harm we are doing to the environment is what makes the big difference. People are always eager to help and you can start reforestation with a handful of seeds. River banks and wetlands can be restored one metre at a time. What’s vital is that we start.

Interviewing Adrian was done under duress. He really does not believe he belongs amongst the great sugarcane farmers that SugarBytes has profiled thus far. Despite the fact that he chose not to discuss details of his operation, outside of the environmental projects, I am sure you can agree that he is indeed a great farmer. Thank you for your time and investment in showing others that it CAN BE DONE. You are remarkable.

I am very grateful to Adrean Naudé, who has Adrian’s greatest respect and gratitude as the local SASRI Extension Officer. He agreed to fulfil our need for sugar cane specific wisdom and advice in this edition. It was a cold, wet day on the 22 November when Adrean and I had way too many cups of coffee and bashed out many key areas of sugar cane farming.

Here’s the summary of that incredibly interesting afternoon …

Adrean has a fascinating story: he went to school in the Western Cape and then qualified in Chemical Engineering at Stellenbosch. Thereafter he studied Analytical Chemistry at Cape Technikon and started 11 years employment at Armscor. (You can imagine by now that I was wondering whether I arrived to the right interview … where’s the agriculture?) Wait … Adrean’s wife got an admin job on a farm and the package included a house on the farm. Travel to Adrean’s workplace, from this farm was onerous and, when the farmer asked Adrean to consider working for him, he accepted … with the warning that he knew nothing about farming! The crop was deciduous fruit and it was also a stud sheep farm. Fuelled by his keen interest in agriculture, he excelled but, when the children had to start school, he chose to move the family closer to town and got a job on a wine farm near Stellenbosch. Farming grapes alone was not enough and Adrean, with his very useful background in chemistry, started to experiment in winemaking. Not surprisingly, he found huge success in this venture and eventually grew to 80 000 bottles, developed their own label and successful export markets. They even won several big international awards. Sadly, when the farm owner, who had never wanted a part of the winemaking business to this point, saw the success it was enjoying he walked in and claimed it all. A bitter legal battle ensued which still remains unresolved but Adrean chose to walk away and started again in Hermanus, working for another wine estate. From there, Adrean took a contract in Egypt, growing potatoes in the sand dunes. 37 000 hectares of pivot irrigated lands yielded 400 tonnes of potatoes per day, seven days a week. There were only 2 two-week breaks in the whole year when the land was prepped for the next crop. Adrean also grew chillies, peppers, citrus, maize, onions and strawberries.

Political instability meant that foreigners’ contracts were not extended and, in 2010, he returned to SA and started his own small contracting business. During this time, he started with SASRI and has been happily assisting North Coast sugar cane farmers for the last 6 ½ years. He loves his job and all the people he works with. He has a huge portfolio, covering P&D as well as Extension for all Commercial growers supplying Gledhow, Darnall and Maidstone. This totals almost 400 farmers and 90 000 hectares of cane! Busy man.

Adrean’s passion lies in soils and plant nutrition. He could not manage to assist so many farmers so well without the brilliant support he gets from Dr Neil Miles and his team at the FAS Agricultural Laboratory. He uses their report as the starting point when advising a farmer. Part of this report is the farmers projections for the field tested. Adrean gives his opinion on these projections and then gives advice on how to achieve these targets. The focus falls on lime application and soil acidity. It is supplied in a report as below:

In this report, Adrean shows the FAS results and then makes an assessment on the soil potential so that he can spot disparities. Then, he has a discussion with the farmer as to why there is a difference between what the farmer thinks he can get from the crop and what Adrean thinks is possible. Based on these discussions, adjustments are made to the recommended lime & gypsum doses. N, P & K requirements are given in the FAS report and Adrean does not differ with these recommendations.

Learnings from Adrean:

  • Acidity and pH reflect different things. Acidity refers to aluminium toxicity. pH is an indicator of how acid or alkaline a soil is. This measurement is irrelevant to crop growth unless there is an undiagnosed issue with the soil and you are conducting a broad search for reasons. Soil testing by FAS measures acidity in terms of the former ie: how much aluminium toxicity is in the soil. Aluminium toxicity stems from crop removals of calcium and magnesium as well as from the use of nitrogen fertilisers; it reduces the plant’s ability to extract other nutrients from the soil. It is a measurement of the health of the soil.
  • Adrean has found that as much as 80% of farmers are over fertilising! This is not only a waste of money but it also raises the acidity of the soil and limits crop potential.
  • Accurate estimates are vital. Because the FAS report not only record levels of plant-available nutrients present in the soil but also give a recommendation as to what fertilisers are to be added – and they base that on what you, as the farmer, expect from that field – your estimates must be accurate. Eg: you estimate 90t/ha but realistically that field can only produce 70t/ha, then you are overspending by about 22% on your fertiliser bill AND you are raising the aluminium toxicity (acidity) of the soil, thereby reducing the potential crop even further.
  • Lime reduces soil acidity (aluminium toxicity). Although the maximum acid saturation at which a soil can be considered healthy for sugar cane is 20%, Adrean recommends that farmers aim to get their levels down to NIL. In this environment, the plant will be able to better use all the other elements (ie: Zinc, Copper, manganese etc) present in the soil. So, the FAS report and recommended application of lime is based on reaching 20%, but Adrean gives another 2 options – one if you’re aiming or 10% and another if you’d like to achieve 0%.
  • When deciding what you’d like to achieve from your land, it is important to consider this application rate. To tie this in to Adrian Reynold’s context of reducing land under cane – although he does this every year, his income does not drop because he is investing more to get his soil acidity levels right and, with that, comes an increase in yields, negating the fact that he has less area under cane. This is what people mean when referring to ‘vertical farming’ – getting more yield (income) from the same (or less) land.
  • Adrean points out that farming poorly or farming well actually takes a same amount of effort. Although farming well requires you to apply yourself in planning and feeding the soil, it allows you to ride the droughts and avert diseases far better. Conversely, a lack of focus in planning and feeding results in extreme struggles through adverse conditions.
  • Sugar cane depletes the soil of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (mg) and acidifies the soil, lime is the cheapest and easiest way to replenish these vital elements for growing sugar cane and correcting soil acidity. They must be replaced in order to return the soil to a 0% acidity. Without it, we just reduce the harvest. In Adrean’s early years with SASRI, he had an old farmer who was adamant that the soil did not need lime. So he struggled on with a lower yield every year until he eventually conceded to follow Adrean’s advice on ONE field. By that stage, Adrean calculated that the soil required about 10t/ha to attend to the high acidity. This was applied with replanting and the following harvest improved dramatically. This is still a vivid memory for the farmer and his son who has now started following Adrean’s recommendations throughout the farm. If there’s anyone out there who is sceptical about liming for the 0% acidity Adrean recommends, it might be worth trying on one This intensive liming is only truly effective when planting. If you are going to apply it on a ratoon field, the maximum Adrean advises per year is 2t/ha of lime plus 2t/ha of gypsum, regardless of the acidity levels – more than that is a waste as it is ineffective applied on the soil surface.
  • Adrean explained that applying lime and gypsum to a ratoon field is like giving the soil a headache tablet. It provides temporary relief and allows the crop to absorb some other nutrients from the soil but the problem is not cured. That can only be done by ‘operating’ ie: when the field is due for a replant, work in the big quantities of lime so that the cause of the headache is dealt with properly.
  • Soil sampling of every field should be done every cycle …

  • Leaf sampling can further refine this process and can be done before the second fertiliser application. Split applications are also highly recommended because no organism likes all its food in one sitting and it gives you the opportunity to correct nutrient balances according to what you want from that field. Farming like this produces unbelievable results … for example, this season, a field (2ha) farmed like this in Upper Tongaat produced 218t/ha. It was a plant field of dry land cane, N51, 18 months old, about 25kms from the coast. This is a new record! Although this type of intensive farming is not always feasible when the extent of the farm is just too vast, it is possible. This is so exciting for small scale growers because they can reach these figures easily, with a little care.
  • Organic matter is VERY important and a prominent factor in Adrean’s calculating the potential yield figure. Although 5% organic matter is great, he has a field currently that is 12% and he gave a minimum potential yield of 140t/ha based solely on that.

Green cane harvesting is recommended by Adrean because of the organic content it adds to the soil and the resultant moisture retention of the soil (this is a drought-prone area). The fertilisers also assimilate far better into an organic-rich environment. Adrean feels that we have work to do on green cane harvesting techniques: currently, the cane is topped and sent to the mill with most of the leaves still attached. This lowers RV% and may choke the mill with excess fibre. He would like to see the side leaves also removed, in the field, which will address both these issues.

There are certain circumstances in which burning is preferable, eg: fire-break corridors and when Eldana is present at high levels and in the moth stage of the life cycle.

Eldana:  Adrean advocates field specific spraying for this pest,with the insecticide preferably being applied using either a knapsack or a helicopter. Generally the products registered to control eldana i.e.  Fastac, Steward, Coragen and Ampligo are all effective in this battle when applied at the correct life stage of the pest. Coragen is a more expensive chemical but requires fewer applications and therefore achieves the same result at a lower total cost. The Biosecurity Inspection Teams can guide and advise regarding counts and spraying.

Varieties: So many factors come in to play when selecting a variety – slope, soil, micro-climate, available soil water content … so it is not possible for Adrean to advise which variety is best without knowing the specific farm and farmer. Adrean did have some interesting background on the decision to degazette NCo376 though: its susceptibility to the mosaic virus is a problem while it was still yielding  well under certain circumstances. However, there are now better varieties that can produce better yields  than 376 and that are NOT prone to mosaic, for example, some of the N50s. The decision to degazette 376 has been taken with  a five-year grace period  being given ie: by March 2022. As a general rule, farmers should not plant more than 30% of any variety, regardless of how well it is doing, to reduce the risk of loss due to pest and disease susceptibility. This is for the farmers benefit.

Seedcane: In a follow-on to the discussion on diseases, Adrean appeals to all farmers to use certified seedcane only. It is a vital step in the process to minimise the risk of the spread of disease and the possible resultant de-gazetting of high-yielding varieties.

Planting:  Adrean’s advice is to fallow the land for a year if you can and plant cover crops during this period. These can be ploughed in when mature. Also add additional organic matter if possible. Ripping to a decent depth is advisable. Apply sufficient lime and gypsum to adequately reduce soil acidity.  Draw the furrows and put your fertiliser into these. Put whole sticks of seedcane into the furrows and cut, preferably every 3rd node. Hot water treated cane does not have to be cut. This treated cane has also been dipped in fungicide and growth stimulant, which is another advantage of buying certified cane. At Gledhow, they encourage the farmers to produce their own certified cane and will transport and treat seedcane free of charge.

Filter press can be added in at this stage, especially if it is early in the season. This helps to retain moisture and the mill supplies it free of charge, even providing transport up to a certain distance. Cover the furrows and wait for the rains!

Adrean mentioned that when planting with good seedcane, double stick planting is really not necessary and can waste so much money. He has recently done trials of single stick vs double stick planting and the fields are indistinguishable from each other. Now there’s a consideration that could save on seedcane costs and make buying certified seedcane more of an option, if price has been a concern. However, it is very important to cover the cane properly. Air pockets etc. will be problematic. Therefore adequate compacting of the soil around the setts is important. Adrean likened it to sticking a pen in water – the cane stick must be covered WELL.

Ripening:  The PurEst™ app is a great tool to assist farmers decide on the need for ripening their cane. Adrean points out that moisture levels in the cane (another reading the app provides) are also important indicators for ripening: although the app will not advise ripening any cane that has an average purity over 85%, Adrean advises to rather look at the moisture content and Brix% gradient and ripen any cane with a moisture level above  69%. For example, there have been instances where Adrean has encountered situations where ripening has been successful when the purity is over 90% and  moisture levels are over 69%.Refractometers are a vital tool for the farmer – it gives you essential information on which to base your ripening decisions as it is a costly exercise and not always beneficial.

Adrean warns that, when using chemical ripeners it is vitally important to adhere to the different spray to harvest periods indicated on the labels.  Not adhering to these time frames will result in poor results.  Some products are safer, particularly late in the season when there is a risk of the mill closing early.

Adrean’s Pearls of wisdom

  • Management is the ‘silver bullet’ which can enable top growers to yield 50% to 150% more than neighbours who have similar growing conditions. Increasing evidence shows that more efficient management, and more specific, management of growth factors is the key to optimising yields.

Growers need evaluate where they stand in terms of their management practices, and how “hands on” they are with the everyday farming activities.

  • Employ Best Management Practices.
    • Top-soil sample test at harvest and subsoil sample at final harvest
    • Fallow fields / Green manure
    • Correct soil acidity
    • Green harvest as much as possible or aim for cool burns
    • Attend to soil micro-nutrient deficiencies
    • Minimise infield compaction
  • It is so important to correct soil Adrean is aware that some farmers may be intimidated by thinking that this task is overwhelming. He advises that, if you want to start the project, rather than doing your whole farm 50%, do half the farm 100%, or start one field at a time. It will be worth it.
  • Ensure that, if you are having your soil analyses done anywhere besides FAS, that soil acidity (aluminium toxicity) is being tested for. Even though the soils on your farm may not be excessively acidic, it is still vital to know.
  • Do not burn previous crop residue after harvesting a field
  • Improve your soil’s organic matter
  • Do not use urea based fertilizers on high volatilizing soils
  • Do not apply urea based fertilizer on a trash blanket due to high volatilization potential
  • Follow FAS recommendations for indicated yield
  • Ensure that the potential yield entered into the FAS submission form reflects soil potential and that the best possible variety is matched to the soil
  • Harvest accurately.
    • Ensure correct base cutting- highest concentration of sucrose is in the bottom of the stalk. This is often left in-field due to poor (high) base cutting.
    • Correct topping height – Top internodes contain very little sucrose.
    • Minimise burn harvest to crush delay. Do not burn areas that are too big to harvest within a day or two.
    • Ensure maximum payloads when loading in-field and road transport.
  • Be aware of what is happening on your farm at all times, including your financial status. Poor cash flow management may have an impact on timing and implementation of critical inputs.

In summary, Adrean is a very kind and invested man who goes beyond the extra mile in working to improve the farmers’ outcomes. He does, however, have high expectations and standards, which work well for him and his farmers in this setting. My summary for him:

Which brings me to the Afrikaans version of this article … you’ll notice there isn’t one.

That’s because I, too, believe in doing things properly and sustainably or not at all and, when it came to these translations, I was achieving neither. I know that the Afrikaans farmers are fully capable in English and I have decided that, rather than make mistakes or create misunderstandings, I will continue in English only. My intentions are good, both in doing the translations, and in stopping them. Thank you to everyone who facilitated me in this regard – you all helped me learn.