As a township girl, the 27-year-old Lerato Senakhomo never dreamt of becoming a farmer. In fact, she hated the idea. Today she is an award-winning farmer, breaking and shaking all kinds of records in Gauteng’s agricultural spaces.
“I never thought I’d be where I am so soon,” says Senakhomo, who farms in Nigel on the East Rand. “God has plans for me.”
Growing up in Thokoza in Ekurhuleni, she could never imagine a career in farming. Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you, however, and when she moved to her parents’ farm in 2006 she started loving the idea of working with livestock. “My father felt that I had to be stronger and fully involved in the family business. I could have chosen a different career, but I chose to be involved. I was being prepared to become a farmer.”
After finishing her matric in 2010, she continued helping her parents on the farm. Two years later she took a six-month farming course at Buhle Farmers’ Academy, a non-profit community college in Delmas, Mpumalanga that trains aspiring farmers across South Africa.
During that time, her parents had been farming on a 1,2 hectare piece of land for years. “Our struggle was very big. My parents had difficulties due to shortage of land.”
In an attempt to help her family, she started applying for access to land in 2007. Seven years later, in 2014, government gave her 435-hectares, ideal for agricultural activities. “When I got the news, it was overwhelming. This was also an opportunity for us to create jobs.”
A major focus on livestock
Senakhomo has planted maize on about a quarter of the land. These days she sells the maize to AFGRI, a leading agricultural services company with a core focus on grain commodities and a vision of driving food security across Africa. She also produces about 350 grazing haystack rolls.
Senakhomo’s farming business most certainly benefits her employees who live on the farm, as well as six additional families who live elsewhere in Nigel. “We’ve given them six hectares of land to plant vegetables. Most of them are small-scale organic farmers, and others do different businesses, like baking building bricks.”
She mostly focuses on livestock farming, though. Senakhomo used to own 800 goats, but has decided to sell 720 of them “because they grow slower than sheep”. With the money she generated from selling these goats, she purchased 150 sheep.
Early last year, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) partnered with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to loan Senakhomo 72 Nguni cows. Now the cows have increased to 86, and each has a birth certificate which shows its lineage – a crucial element of livestock farming.
The “loaned cows” have to be paid back in monetary form, or by giving back a certain number of cows over a period of seven years. “I chose to give back the cows (so that others can benefit from it too). I am required to bring back 48 pregnant Nguni cows, plus one bull.”
Senakhomo says the cattle need a lot of attention because of their peculiar habits. “Every now and then we have to do pregnancy tests so that we can estimate when each calf is expected to be born, because when you follow a Nguni cow that has just given birth, she stops going to the calf when she notices that she’s being followed.”
She wants to expand her livestock, and dreams of adding a poultry division in the next couple of years – rather ironic, though, because Senakhomo admits that she’s got a phobia for chickens. “Yoh! Yazi ini! (“You know what?”) I am scared of chickens. I could even faint. I’m afraid of things that fly.”
Visibly shaken, she adds, looking at her last-born daughter riding a bicycle while the first-born brushes the scalp of Chillies, the family dog, “My girls know that I have a phobia for chickens. They help me out with the chickens – even during the school holidays my girls will go and sell the chickens that we have here on the farm.”
Her children are her biggest inspiration, and she hopes that one day they too will follow in her footsteps. They love farming.
“There is no success without a successor. My girls are my successors.”
Senakhomo says that most of the skills she has acquired she learned them at the Buhle Farmers’ Academy. “You cannot farm or control a farm with a remote. Farming needs you to be physically present.”
Learning from livestock labour pains
However, her cattle herders, who come from Lesotho, also taught her a thing or two, including what to do when a cow goes into labour – an experience that has initially left Senakhomo emotionally devastated. She recalls one particular incident on Christmas Day 2015.
“One of the cows desperately tried to give birth and eventually succeeded. In the process of giving birth, she broke her spinal cord. She could not push out the calf’s big head. From then, she became paralysed. We named her child Christmas.”
With this happenstance, Senakhomo says she now knows that beef cattle should not mate with dairy cows as it could lead to fatalities and financial loss.
Another tough lesson was when she noticed a “teenage” goat in excruciating pain. “I was confused. What’s up with this little goat. When I took her to the veterinary hospital I found out that she was in labour. How could this little one be pregnant? I was shocked.”
The vet said that the goat was too young “to understand pregnancy”. “Now I don’t want teenage pregnancies. I’ve learned to sort my goats according to their age and my cattle according to their breed.”
Two major awards in one week
This bubbly-spirited farmer has won many prestigious agricultural awards. Most recently, she won two awards in August last year. A day after her birthday, on 7 August, John Deere offered her a tractor, ripper, planter and agreed to give Senakhomo business structure support.
A week later, she also received an award from government.
“This is one of my biggest awards. Last year I made history. I have a strong faith, like those farmers who confidently put seeds in the soil without any sight of rainfall, but because of faith, they have no doubt that the seeds will bear fruits whenever rainfall comes.”
Senakhomo is pleased with her work, but she wants to do more in the coming years for young farmers. “I want more young farmers and agricultural students to come to my farm to get further training and practical experience. We must make farming fashionable, just like careers such as information and technology.”