A breath of fresh air

2008-10-10 00:00

MEETING JJ van der Velde was a real breath of fresh air. When so many of our farmers are being forced to give up farming, here is a young foreigner who replaced a farming future in Holland with one in the midlands.

The meeting did not happen by luck. John Fowler, who farms very successfully outside Howick, got hold of me to show me that there are some positive things happening in the farming world. He took me to see Van der Velde who farms near Nottingham Road.

In 1993, Van der Velde was studying agriculture in Holland and needed to spend a period doing practical farming. Because his father was a potato producer in Holland and Fowler and his son David were producing potatoes here, a mutual contact suggested that Van der Velde try getting a job with Fowler Farming. A few letters passed back and forth and Van der Velde was offered a place on the Fowlers’ farm for the period of his practical exposure.

The following year he returned to work for the Simba company in Pietermaritzburg, went home to Holland to complete his thesis and then came back to work for the Fowlers, who had just bought Blackwood farm. Van der Velde got stuck in and over five years, with the help of David Fowler, turned the wattle-infested farm into a very successful operation.

By this stage, Van der Velde had met and married Samantha, who comes from Nottingham Road, and decided it was time to spread his wings. With the help of his father, he purchased the farm Zuivergoud outside Nottingham Road in 2000. Subsequently his father purchased the neighbouring farm, Zuiderdiep.

On the 520-hectare farm, of which 280 ha is arable, as well as utilising his father’s farm, Van der Velde and Samantha grow 60 ha of seed potatoes, 75 ha of wheat, 70 ha of soya beans, 100 ha of maize and 40 ha of eragrostis. For the uninitiated, potatoes have to be grown in rotation with other crops to control disease and often there has to be a five-year cycle so Van der Velde is limited to the 60 ha of potatoes on this farm.

What is exciting is the enthusiasm and precision with which these farms are managed. Many of our South African-reared youth are thrown into managing large labour forces at a young age and often do not have the chance to get involved in manual work. In contrast, Van der Velde learnt from an early age, while in Holland, that he was the labour on his father’s farm, so getting involved in hands-on work was not new to him. This practical involvement has been maintained on his farm in South Africa. He does all the land preparation, planting, insecticide application and harvesting himself. He certainly complies with the principle that if you have a million-rand piece of mechanical equipment you make sure that a qualified person, such as yourself, drives it. On this intensive farming operation he employs only six staff members.

No doubt this personal involvement in everything done on the farm is a major reason for his success. Van der Velde appreciates that he should expand his operation but the farms available in this area have increased five-fold in value since he bought in 2000. The land is now far to valuable to buy and farm — the return on investment would be ridiculously low. He cannot buy land further away because it would mean employing managers to run the farms and he believes that his success is due to his personal input which he could not provide on a farm far away.

Last year he began harvesting his wheat crop on December 5. Three hours later the whole crop was destroyed by a hail storm. He reckons that to farm consistently you have to have the spirit to take the knocks, pick up the pieces and carry on.

The morning I visited the farm there was snow on the mountains. The wheat had already tillered and therefore was susceptible to frost damage. At 5 am the temperature in the wheat had dropped to 0,2°C and by 6 am it was down to -0.2 degrees. Luckily that is where it stayed or the crop would have been badly damaged.

Van der Velde emphasises that a farmer has to be everything from a labourer to lawyer to accountant (Samantha does the books). In addition, Van der Velde is involved in numerous committees in the area. Although his time is very limited, he believes in the value of networking through these committees but admits that he “sleeps a lot in meetings”. I have the feeling that he may close his eyes but is wide awake all the time.

His effort and success in farming have been acknowledged by his peers — last year he was voted KZN Young Farmer of the Year and this year he is the National Seed Potato Grower of the Year.

Van der Velde believes that a great contributor to his success was the six years with Fowler Farming. On the other hand, the Fowlers state that the success of their Blackwood farm has a lot to do with the enthusiastic young Hollander who decided to move to Africa to farm.

Definitely a breath of fresh air.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or e-mail agpaterson@satweb.co.za

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