From teacher, taxi owner to commercial crop farmer

The saying ‘adapt or die’ fits Free State farmer Shadrack Mbhele like a glove. The 52-year-old has worn many hats in his life and even in farming he had to change his strategy to become the successful farmer that he is today

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Although Shadrack Mbele (52) from Lindley in the Free State was a teacher by profession he always had an aptitude for business. When he saw an opportunity in the taxi industry in Qwaqwa in the late 80s he seized it with both hands and became a taxi owner.

But the Eastern Free State taxi industry faced unrest in the early nineties. With the persuasion of his late father Ephraim Mbele and wife Nthepa Elina Mbele he decided to leave the taxi industry and partnered with his father to start a farming business in 1993.

“We sold all the taxis and the minibuses to buy dairy cattle,” he says.

Mbele shares that his father was already a farmer at the time so getting the business off the ground was not that difficult. Ephraim also used to work as farm manager on a farm in Lindley when Shadrack was still a young boy so they could use his knowledge and skills to get the business off the ground.

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“Fortunately, my dad was already leasing land from Agriqwa in Qwaqwa in the Free State, so we didn’t have to find land,” he says.

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In 2000, the pair bought Danielrus farm in Harrismith and they received funding through the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development programme project (LRAD). 

The LRAD project is designed to provide grants to black South African citizens to access land specifically for agricultural purposes, or to make better use of land already accessed (e.g. in communal areas).

“They helped us with half of the amount we needed to buy the farm and we paid the rest,” he says.

Transitioning from dairy to crop farming

Mbele and his father pursued dairy farming until 2005 and in 2006 they ventured into crop farming because dairy farming was not bringing in the profit they desired.

Dairy farming was challenging because production input costs are high, but our milk price remained the same. We last saw an increase in the milk price before 2000. The milk price in the year 2000 was at R4,80 even today the milk price still stands at [around that level].”

Shadrack Mbele grows soya beans, maize as well as sugar beans on his farms called Danielsrus in the Free State.

“But when you look at the production costs, they have doubled since the year 2000 so we are no longer making a profit in dairy farming. Those who are making a profit are those who are being subsidised somewhere. If you can come to the Free State, you will realise so many farmers, even commercial white farmers, are leaving the dairy industry for something else,” he says.

In 2007 his father passed away and he was forced to run Danielrus farm on his own.

Today Mbele specialises in mixed farming, he grows crops such as soya beans and maize as well as sugar beans. 

“I’m also farming with sheep, but on a very small scale and I am doing dairy farming, but now I have stopped milking because of the challenges of Eskom,” he says.

Mbele shares that when he left dairy farming it was challenging because he no longer had a monthly income. He had to sell some of his sheep so he could pay his workers, his electricity bill and living expenses every month.

“I also had to learn new skills and fortunately I was helped greatly by Grain SA. They used to have workshops where they would teach us about crop farming. Also, when I started crop farming my neighbours were also experienced crop farmers so I did learn from them as well,” he says.

Things started looking up for him in 2013 when he had a magnificent maize harvest averaging 7,6 tonnes per hectare. He joined the ranks of Grain SA’s 250t maize producers club. In 2014 he harvested 2,5 tonnes per hectare of dry beans and that’s where he saw there “could be life in farming”.

Today he currently supplies his maize to VKB, AFGRI, Grain Zone and he sells his beans to Tiger Brands and Schoeman Boerdery in Mpumalanga.

Mbele says he accessed his markets when he was featured on two media platforms a few years ago.

“When I had a very high yield of beans Farmers Weekly profiled me and my contact details were on the article and different buyers approached me. I compared the prices and sold it to the highest bidder. I was also featured on e.tv which brought me more clientele. I even received calls from China,” he says.

Even though he has not exported his crops to international markets yet, next season he will be exporting his soya beans internationally with the help of Free State Agriculture.

On his 226.26 ha farm he currently employs two permanent workers and students from nearby universities for vocational work.

Building for the future

His future goal is to become part of the whole food value chain.

“I want to see myself involved in the whole food value chain and I want to process my own products. Before I wanted to process milk, I even bought all the milk processing machinery but my milk production was on a very small scale so I couldn’t meet the demand.”

He also intends to establish a small company to pack and sell his own beans. “I want to do this because this year we are selling a ton of beans for R23 000 which means 1 kg of beans is R23. But when you go to a supermarket you will find that 500g of beans cost between R27 and R30 so if I can process my own beans, I could make more money,” he says.

Mbele’s advice to aspiring young farmers is to be patient.

“They must not rush for money, they must look at the sustainability of the farm. There is no quick money in farming; you need to be patient because returns take time. But there is a future in farming because everybody needs three meals per day and there is not a single person who will not need food,” he says.

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