Mentor of the Month: Opening the world for new farmers

JOHAN NORVAL

FARMING SA and FNB’s Mentor for February, Judy Stuart, has one great passion: To empower young people so they can do things
for themselves.

Judy Stuart, a dairy farmer from the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, was born with a passion for farming,
but didn’t have the opportunity to study agriculture. This made her decide to help young matriculants who didn’t have the chance to further their studies. “I wanted to create an alternative for them,” says Stuart.
She approached Zakhe Agricultural College at Baynesfield in KwaZulu-Natal to develop an apprenticeship programme. The resulting Future Farmers project has been extremely successful. It has led to Stuart winning the SA Studbook/Land Bank Award for Excellence last year, and now the FARMING SA and First National Bank’s Mentor for February Award.
The programme empowers enthusiastic young people who have little prospect to further their agricultural studies by offering them practical experience on local and overseas farms. The rest is up to them; hard work and integrity could launch them on a career in agriculture that could see them attending university.
The project is well under way: There are 15 to 20 young men currently on farms (and some waiting to be placed). “While working on the farms, students attend short courses at Cedara Agricultural College to support their practical experience. They do everything on the farm, from cleaning the dairy to fencing, milking and tractor driving,” says Stuart.
 
Working overseas
Stuart tries to place participants who do well on a farm in the USA and Europe for a year. “It is a massive maturing process and they return with some valuable skills,” she says.
“When they return, it’s relatively easy to place them in managerial positions on local farms. Farmers are desperate for people who have both skills and experience. We’re meeting a need. One of the students who returned from the USA earlier this year is earning at least what he would earn if he had a university degree!”
Until recently Stuart ran the programme herself, but two of the young men who are now farm managers have become members of a committee that runs the project.
Funding is a problem. “There’s been no money for the programme. I market imported dairy and beef genetics within the farming community and my business (Swedish Genetics SA) covers most of the costs. This year the Underberg Farmers’ Association and the No Till Club have offered to put up money to send students overseas,” she says.
Students earn good money abroad, and the idea is that they pay back the money. A single donation of R20 000 could, potentially, send three students overseas per year.

Personal experience
Stuart still has difficulty finding farmers who are willing to take on the students straight out of school. But there’s growing interest from farming organisations, as farmers who do take on students are generally very impressed with them. There is, however, a real demand for the lads returning from overseas.
“They learn skills, new languages, how to work really hard and a whole lot more. On their return, they are ready to study. One student, Sifiso Ntshisa, passed an Agri Business course at UNISA with distinction,” says Stuart proudly.
Twenty-three-year-old Ntshisa had the experience of his life on a German farm where he and his host were the only labourers. He learnt all aspects of farm work, including
tending the cows, cutting silage, ploughing and planting the crops. He adapted so well to this farming experience that his stay was extended to 15 months.
Ntshisa squeezed in even more practical experience by working on a neighbouring farm in his free time. He had a taste of German city life when he spent a week in Berlin
and also spent some time in Denmark.
And what impressed him most? The technological know-how of German farmers, who save significantly on labour by performing multiple production activities at one time, using only one tractor. His experience prepared him for his present employment as farm manager at the Rockfontein dairy farm, Ixopo, where he cares for 700 cows in milk. This is not the end of the road for him. His next goal is to run a commercial enterprise on his own land.
The Future Farmer Project enabled Rodney Duma, also from Underberg and also 23 years old, to spend 12 months in Florida, America. In the dairy section of his host farm, 4 500 cows had to be milked every eight hours in three shifts, daily. He also spent time driving tractors in the crops section and performed other tasks on the farm.
He spent his free time sight-seeing, and spent a week in New York. The cultural experience of his life was the Spanish influence of the different immigrants working on farms.
Duma is now employed as manager of the dairy section of the Underberg-based Seafort farms belonging to Steve Roberts. Part of his bright future is a strong possibility of a partnership with his current employer.
 
Project vision
“Ultimately, I would like to see some of these young men owning or managing commercial farms,” says Stuart. “Ownership is a goal, but it’s important to remember that a top manager earns a very good salary and that ownership is not always the final goal.”
She adds that when she sees a young lad from an impoverished background taking charge of a 600-cow dairy, making a success of it and earning a really good salary, she has all the reward she needs.

Pages: 24 - 25
Photo's: Colour