Ken Root is filing reports this week from Southern Africa, where it is early spring and – as part of an expedition that is being underwritten by Peoples Company – the veteran ag broadcaster along with photographer Michael McClean and investment analyst Maurice Clark are taking a close look at agricultural potential in three countries: South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia. The U.S. team including of Root, McClean and Clark, arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the evening of Sunday, October 5, following a 16-hour flight from Atlanta. Monday morning, following a 10-hour flight from London, they were joined by Koos DeKlerk, an area-farm manager, and Susan Payne, executive chairman of EmVest.
The climate of South Africa is almost a mirror image of Southern California. The season is opposite so springtime is coming quickly with daytime temperatures above 90 degrees. Nights are cool in the dry air with temperatures dropping down to 45 to 50 degrees. The climate is dry with an average rainfall of 15 inches. At this season, it is showing the lack of moisture with several burned areas and red dust pluming behind any tillage equipment.
A tractor sits on corn, or maize, farm in South Africa. Photo by Michael McClean.
We spent half of the first day journeying to a farm in the Mafikeng, which is in the Northwest Province of South Africa. Most of the land is unpopulated with vast reaches of almost treeless land in an arid environment. The corn fields were harvested months ago, and standing stalks are tobacco brown. Most have blooming weeds in between the rows as farmers are very conscious of wind erosion, and want to hold the sandy soil in place until the rains come and they can begin tillage for the new crop.
Corn is called “maize” here, and the remnants of the crop we have seen are white long kernels that are flint dry. The crop is planted in late October, and harvested in March. Rows are spaced about 36 inches apart, and the land is ripped about two-and-a-half feet deep then disked before planting. Reasons for those operations will become more apparent in later entries.
Everything is on the metric system so farmers talk of hectares (2.47 acres) and tonnes (2,200 pounds). They also talk of rainfall in millimeters (about 500 per year is 19.7 inches). I will attempt to “Americanize” the numbers for easier uptake.
Susan and Koos (pronounced “Kours” like the beer) have had farming interests here and are very familiar with the region and the farmers. They introduced us to Gearhart Dreyer, who goes by “Herric” and owns several thousand acres along with his brother. He has main financial interests, including row crops on extensive acreage, a game farm, and peanut processing. Peanuts are a native crop in Africa and are called “ground nuts.”
We were graciously welcomed to his home that sits in the midst of a windbreak and among very tall trees. His large and friendly dogs welcomed us, as well, and he showed Susan his newest member of the family; a miniature stallion for his daughter. The Great Dane was larger than the horse!
Maurice Clark, Susan Payne and Koos DeKlerk tour a grain bag storage facility in South Africa. October 2014. Photo by Michael McClean.
We drove to a grain storage facility that surprised me. It is a commercial venture with all the grain stored on the ground in heavy white plastic sausages. The land is graded to allow the bags to be on the ridges. The manager “Enrico” was very accommodating to show us how the grain was received, then moved to bags, stored and later unloaded from the bags, and hauled out by truck. He rides a 4 wheeler to get through the sandy soil and inspect the work across the almost half mile stretch. Each bag is approximately 150 feet long. The filling equipment is the same at that used in the United States, but on a much larger scale. Dry weather helps to keep it in condition, and all must be 12.5 percent moisture, or lower, to be accepted.
That is not hard in this environment. The corn is white food grade corn that is mostly exported north, and ground to be used as a staple food.
In view of the bag-storage facility is a grain silo system that apparently has not fared well. Herric says his cost is 25 rand per ton for the full turn of loading in and out. That figures out to only a few cents per bushel so the key is using the climate to your advantage, bringing in low cost technology and adding an economy of scale.
South African farmers are innovative to say the least.
Herric talked about his cropping system and took us to a game farm that sits next to one he owns. The scenery was strikingly beautiful as we arrived just as the sun was setting and we could see hundreds of waterfowl on the shallow lake with many types of antelope and wildebeest grazing in the predator free fenced preserve. Koos pointed out two light colored rhino on the far side of the water.
Darkness came quickly and we settled down to hear about the region as we were treated to “biltong,” which is a meat similar to jerky. He later cooked chicken and beef with coals from an open fire. The cool air quickly made the fire inviting and we enjoyed some South African wines to cap off the evening.
- Ken Root