Farming mentor’s golden rule: Never overplay your hand

After accumulating 43 years’ experience in farming, 61-year-old farmer Barend 'Barry' Nel made it his mission to mentor farmers across the country for the sake of food security

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Despite the challenges that farming may bring there is nothing else that 61-year-old farming mentor Barend “Barry” Nel would rather do than to be in the open air with muddied boots, working the soil. He believes that farming is in his genes, and he promises that he would never desert it, even if he was offered an office job in Sandton.

“You know, every time I have to go up to Joburg to the South African Breweries offices for meetings and stuff. When I get there, I say to myself that I don’t ever want to live in a place like this.

“But there’s thousands of people living there, and they don’t want to come live on the farm, they are very happy there. But I don’t want to live there – I want to be here where I can get my hands dirty,” he laughs. 

Nel often visits the South African Breweries (SAB) offices in Sandton when he has meetings with FarmSol. Nel acts as a farmer mentor for this black-owned agricultural services company which is an implementation partner to the SAB farmer development programme. 

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Farmer mentor Barry Nel and mentee Clifford Mthimkhulu doing a yield estimate on Mthimkhulu’s Astoria farm in Senekal, Free State. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

It is focused on bringing sustainable solutions that link customers in the food and beverage sector with emerging farmers as their raw material suppliers. Nel is currently mentoring 29 farmers across the country on a contract basis through the programme. 

ALSO READ: Free State ‘black gold’ breeder shares his secret to success

Making a difference for new farmers

Nel says that he enjoys his job and explains that after 40-odd years of farming he has built up enough experience and knowledge that he would gladly pass it on to the younger farmers who need it. 

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“You know, with all the all the new farmers coming up, especially our developing farmers coming up in the country, I’ve seen it. Even with the guys that grew up on farms they still don’t have the knowledge to be successful commercial farmers,” he says.

“I really feel that going forward in our country, we need to develop our farmers because at the end of the day, if there is no food, there is no future.”

Driving around the country while doing his mentoring work, it is not uncommon seeing farms that were given by government to black farmers lying fallow or underused, he says.

“It’s because the guys didn’t have the knowledge. The government gave them the land, but the land doesn’t belong to them, so they’ve got no equity. They can’t go to a bank and borrow money because they’ve got no surety to give to the bank.”

He believes that getting land with no support actually puts people in a worse position than not having access to land at all.

“It’s important that we support these guys that get the land to make the best out of that land so that they can produce food for the nation and at the same time create the proper income and the legacy for their family and their children.”

How he became a mentor for FarmSol

The KwaZulu-Natal farmer started working for FarmSol eight years ago when he was headhunted by the people at SAB that he used to supply maize grits to. 

“I was making white maize grits for SAB, which were exported to Angola for brewing purposes there. That’s how I actually came in contact with the people in SA Breweries. Then in 2013 when they wanted to start their Go-Farming programme [which later became FarmSol], the guys that I used to work with contacted me and said that they are looking at starting this project and that they want to launch it in KZN,” he recalls.

“They knew I could speak Zulu very well, so they asked me if I am interested in helping them to get the programme off the ground, and that’s how I got involved.” 

Before joining FarmSol, Nel was running a crop farm with his late father, Frik, in Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal since 1987. This was just after his father moved from a farm called Grootdraai in Harrismith in the Free State.

Nel says they moved from the Free State because of better agricultural opportunities in KwaZulu-Natal. “It’s just better than in the Free State. You’ve got a much higher rainfall than what you’ve got in the Free State and also in those days up in the Free State the only commodities that were planted were maize and sunflower.”

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Barry Nel travels widely around Mzansi, tasked by FarmSol and SAB to investigate development opportunities. Here he is advising an up-and-coming farmer in the Eastern Cape. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

He says that apart from the opportunity to grow a wider range of commodities, the farm that they bought in KwaZulu-Natal had an irrigation system which allowed them to do double cropping. 

“We could plant our winter crop – wheat- and summer crops – either maize or soybeans,” he says. The Nels not only grew soybeans, wheat, maize and potatoes, they also owned a milling facility.

His dad retired in 1998 and moved into a retirement village with his mother. Nel bought a 60-hectare farm called Malta in Winterton in the same year.  

“I didn’t want to go and stay in town because I will never be able to live in a town. This little piece of ground came up and I bought it. So, I have been here for 23 years now,” he says. 

Nel is currently farming with Meatmaster sheep, because they are a low maintenance breed. “I am away from home a lot and I can’t afford to farm with something that needs a lot of TLC all the time. I also plant maize, mainly as feed for the sheep and I also supply Gala Grain which is one of the grain brokers in Winterton,” he says. 

Mentor’s tips for new farmers 

When asked for advice for young farmers, Nel says he wants to give them two important lessons his father taught him while they farmed together. 

Know your limits: “The first thing that he always said was ‘never overplay your hand’. In other words, never, ever do what you’re not capable of doing. You know, do what you can do but at the same time don’t stagnate into one thing. You’ve got to develop with the changing technology and times.”

Honesty and hard work: “The other thing is always to be honest, it doesn’t matter with who or what. Do straight, honest business and work hard. Then you’ll succeed, and those are the truths in life. If you’re a straightforward, honest person, and you work hard, you will survive and you will go forward. You will definitely come out on top.”

ALSO READ: How this apple farmer ensures his competitive edge

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