“I am new into potatoes but old in farming,” says Aldrin Lawrence (53) who was crowned Potatoes South Africa 2022’s Enterprise Development Farmer of the Year. He competed against two other finalists from Limpopo and won an all-expenses paid trip to a potato conference in Malawi as well as Bayer products worth R65 000.
“The first year they cover 100% of certified, which is seeds free of charge,” he says. For being the potato champion, Potato South Africa has offered to cover the costs of seeds, a training course and a mentor.
From year one to four of the development programme, Potato South Africa will be evenly reducing its coverage by 25%. Then the fifth year is an exit out of the programme, and he is expected to cover 100% of the costs.
“I’ve established my own brand, which is Buyshoek Boerdery. Even if the markets are full, I still get the best price of the lowest.”
He says he’s extremely happy to be conferred with the award, which celebrates farmers who have performed well in the potato industry and who have shown the potential to become commercial farmers in the future, or who are already commercial farmers.
Although he has diversified his products, from broiler chickens to cattle, Lawrence has come a long way to become a potato farmer. It took him an insurmountable 15 years of patience to finally clear and prepare 7.2 hectares to plant his first batch of potatoes in 2017.
“What kept me going is that I had a dream,” Lawrence says. “Limpopo is one of the biggest potatoes producers. But it can also take you down as quick as it can take you up. When I started [planting potatoes] the costs were around R100 000 per hectare,” he says.
But the costs of planting potatoes this year have almost doubled. The suppliers credit the increment to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other extenuating factors. All of these have led him to spend nearly R200 000 per hectare. These costs are exclusive of labour, soil preparation, electricity, and more.
“In this area a potato is the only [crop] that gives you the most profit per hectare if you got enough water,” he says, adding that there is a certain time or window in a year where only Limpopo farmers can plant potatoes.
The costs of getting things right
Lawrence remarkably harvested over 60 tons of potatoes per hectare in his first year. He also applied for a grant to the Limpopo department of agriculture, land reform and rural development to improve agribusiness. The grant enabled him to drill boreholes, install pivots and electricity and invest in the construction of the reservoir and a pump station.
Since his inception of planting potatoes, his turnover harvest has been soaring. For instance, in his third year he reached a high record of 70 tons per hectare. Given his growth, he has acquired more fields in the Buysdorp area in Limpopo. Each of the fields accounts to 7.2 hectares of land.
Out of the total of eight fields, Lawrence only plants potatoes in two fields per year. “Like now, the other fields are resting…The resting is important for soil diseases. If you plant a potato, there is some viruses in the seed and when you harvest some of the viruses stay in the soil. If you don’t plant, especially if there is natural grass growing there, the soil rectifies itself,” he explains.
But growth comes with great responsibility and let alone when you’ve been conferred with an excellence award. “I’ve established my own brand, which is Buyshoek Boerdery. Even if the markets are full, I still get the best price of the lowest,” he says with pride.
“Quality counts and it takes a long time to build your name. In farming there are no shortcuts. You must be willing to work hard and get your hands dirty.”
Although potato prices have somewhat risen, there is something that worries Lawrence. “If you look at your input cost, everything has gone up – labour, diesel, etc. – it does not add up actually,” he explains.
“If it was up to me, I would not plant this year. But you need to take a chance and also you need to feed the people. The prices should have been much more [higher], but people do not have money and if the prices go higher, there is resistance.”
Ways to get to the top
There is a plethora of hurdles along the way to the top, but it is doable. “You have to do things the right way,” Lawrence says. And according to him, the right way is:
- If you do soil preparation, do not cheat, even if it is expensive. Make sure to do soil samples as they inform you of how much nutrients the soil need.
- Put whatever amount of manure you are advised to put per hectare. And when advised to put a certain product, you shouldn’t buy a generic or a cheaper one.
- Pay careful attention to yields. “If a seed is overripe, it will make a lot of shoots. But I prefer three shoots,” he says. “I don’t want to plant potato seeds that are overripe; the shoots give a lot of potatoes, but they will be small. Your best prices [range between] medium to large [size of potatoes].”
- Pay attention to planting depth. “From the top of the ridge to where the potato sits it should be 18cm, but 15cm is still acceptable,” he says If you plant too shallow, all the potatoes will stick out. Eventually, they’re likely to be more susceptible to rotting and greening.
- And lastly, don’t forget to adhere to the farmer’s biggest verse: faith!
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