“My passion has been agriculture from the onset,” says Nhlanhla Zuma (45) with his soft voice, flavoured with so much mirth that beckons positive vibrations. His hardcore desire to feed the nation goes back far into his upbringing in Hammarsdale in KwaZulu-Natal.
Zuma’s route into agriculture passed through the teaching profession, which he abandoned many moons ago for a customs job at SARS. But since 2007, the founder of Isidleke Farm has been farming on his 3.8-hectare land in Vischuil, a rural community in the east of Gauteng.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that crime would become a constant threat to his business, threatening to douse the flame of his ambition. A case in point: when he installed an electrical power line to his farm, the following day the transformer was stolen. And in about a year’s time, the cable fell prey to thieves, too.
A similar fate met his attempt to start farming with emus – flightless birds that possesses one of the most expensive oils, frequently used in the cosmetic and health industry. Within two years, in 2009, some of the locals killed his emus with hunting dogs, also killing this ambition.
Rampant livestock theft
The following year, he says, one of his workers tried to collude with criminals to steal 35 Damara sheep. “That’s why I am saying this thing is so tough, because the person that is helping you is supposed to protect you,” he says.
Not far from the entrance of Zuma’s farm there’s a large acorn tree, and adjacent to it lies a roofless brick structure. “Here I had pigs,” he points to the structure and tells me that in 2016 criminals came to slaughter his pigs inside the sty. “After that they removed and stole the corrugated iron sheets,” he explains.
Zuma laments that crime has deeply affected his operations. “I blame the whole South African society that people have run out of morals to be able to see that stealing is wrong. How do you manage to have a productive farming operation in a fraudulent system? We need all the support we can get, but we don’t need stealing.”
This level of crime happens mainly because he doesn’t reside on the farm, he says. If giving up farming did not equate to suicide for him, he’d have quit long ago. He is in an inseparable, yet bittersweet conundrum – if he’s Romeo, then agriculture is his Juliet.
“I am at peace with the land and buying this plot of land felt like I am closer to my ancestors or God,” he says, adding: “Farming is life, it is like if I stop farming, life also stops. Also, generational wealth is important for me, and this is how I can secure it for my future generations.”
Switching to vegetables
These seemingly incessant crimes have forced him to reroute his operation to mostly vegetable farming. “Everything I do I have to calculate and think, is it going to be stolen? Will I find a market? It is a difficult life, but we are living it,” he tells me of the factors he now considers before planting.
Currently he’s planting paprika, which he supplies to the fresh produce market in Tshwane and to the dried spice market. “Paprika is spicier and more pungent, green pepper is sort of dull compared to green paprika,” he says. Also, he’s planted garlic and small, red cabbages mainly used for salads and butternut. He also sells the butternut leaves mixed with baby butternut, which becomes a delicious condiment.
Before Covid-19 hit our shores, he’d planned to supply quail meat. However, due to the dramatic decline in demand, this came to a halt. With the market slightly opening again, he’s incubating quail eggs. The tiny and pretty eggs which are surprisingly rich in nutrients are rapidly gaining traction in cooking.
His farm is blessed with an abundance of a naturally grown impepho, used as a kind of incense. He wants to supply this plant to the traditional medicine industry. This indigenous African plant, once dried up, is used by traditional healers who believe that it serves to communicate with those who’ve departed.
The only livestock to survive crime
The only livestock that has managed to survive the thieves’ onslaught are his 70 ducks. If attacked, they flee to the centre of the pond that he’s dug.
Zuma says that he intends to expand so that he can tap into the production of duck eggs and plumage. “The feathers on the neck are much softer, once cleaned and washed and perfumed we use them for the stuffing of pillows. They’ve got a very nice texture and we can use them for duvets. It is much heavier and softer,” he tells me.
He also has beehives for the production of honey. “What the bees forage on determines the flavour profile of the honey. Mine is a multiflora honey, because the bees feed on gum trees, cosmos flowers, and on soya flowers as well,” he says. His beehives are made of pallet concrete, making them much stronger.
‘There are many people who are dead and have never achieved their dreams.’
There is so much wisdom to learn from them, Zuma says. A bee doesn’t ordinarily sting because this comes with the risk of losing its life, but they will do so for the better of the colony.
“Bees know how the clock works. In the evening they come back to find refuge in the colony and in the morning they’re out and about to work,” he explains. “As a farmer, time is everything, I need to plant at the right time. Bees for me are like a watch, I can see in their behaviour that winter is coming.”
Zuma says, apart from honey production, bees are quite handy when it comes to proliferation of his produce, especially pumpkins. “A bee has a greater chance of pollinating all the produce; this is a symbiotic relationship because it is their feed. If you have bees like me and you’ve got pumpkins, you’ll have about 25 percent increased production of pumpkins,” he explains the utility of bees in pollination services.
A deferred dream
In future, he hopes to have an olive orchid. He’s already begun paving the way for this. Four years ago, he started experimenting with the suitability of olive trees on his farm by planting four of them. The breed that’s survived is mission, which is suitable to black table olive production as well as for olive oil.
Once this plan is set in motion, he foresees also producing activated charcoal made out of the olive pit. Activated charcoal is used “to absorb all forms of impurities. It is used in medicinal spaces, food industry, in big commercial gold production, municipalities use it to purify water, and more,” he says.
Given the large capital input required to launch such a plantation project, for now this is a deferred dream. “However, for you to achieve your dreams at some stage you’ll have to wait for the right time. There are many people who are dead and have never achieved their dreams. I am still alive, I am hoping I’ll achieve those dreams.”