New farmers: How to start farming sugar cane

Farming with sugar cane is no easy feat. But if you are a farmer in Mpumalanga or KwaZulu-Natal, this might be the crop for you

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The South African Sugar Association (SASA) estimates that 19 087 270 tonnes of sugar cane will be crushed from this year’s harvest. If you want to be part of this market, then you need to know how to start farming sugar cane.

Sugar cane is a type of tropical grass that can be milled down to produce the sugar you sprinkle over your cereal and put into your tea or coffee every day. In South Africa, sugar cane can be farmed from southern KwaZulu-Natal to the Mpumalanga Lowveld.

Rodney Mbuyazi, a sugar cane and livestock farmer, started his farm in 2007 in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal. He has been farming with sugar cane on Concur Farm since then, and is sharing his knowledge with Food For Mzansi readers.

Things to know before you get started

Before starting your sugar cane farm, you need to know how much it will cost. Most farming practices require a lot of money and resources before you can start farming, and this is true for sugar cane farming as well.

sugar cane farmer
Rodney Mbuyazi is a sugar cane and livestock farmer in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Supplied

“Just to generate a hectare, you need a good thirty-five to about forty thousand rands,” Mbuyazi says.

The high cost of farming with sugar cane is because you need to buy special equipment to farm with sugar cane.

“You need to have equipment,” he says. “For example, you need a tractor, a plough, all the necessary equipment.”

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Other inputs needed over time include fertiliser, insecticides, and pesticides, according to Mbuyazi.

The crop is also very labour intensive which adds to the high expense of farming it.

“When it comes to harvesting you need cane cutters,” Mbuyazi says. Sugar cane needs to be cut by hand, so you need a lot of people during the harvesting season.

He recommends making your sugar cane farming operation as efficient as possible in order to save money and time.

The South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) is an agricultural research institute that provides a lot of helpful resources on farming with sugar cane that can be beneficial to new farmers.

ALSO READ: Sugarcane queens changing KZN farming landscape

Climate requirements

Because of our country’s amazing diversity of climates, there are a lot of unexpected crops that we can farm with in Mzansi. On the east coast we have a subtropical climate where a variety of tropical crops can be farmed with. Sugar cane makes up a big proportion of these crops.

“Sugar cane does well under our [subtropical] climate,” Mbuyazi says. “It needs both water and sun to flourish.”

Sugar cane also does well in drylands, where there is enough natural rain or an irrigation system to provide enough water for the crop.

He also points out that sugar cane requires good soils to grow in if you want high yields.

Planting and harvesting

Sugarcane is grown all year round, with the length of the crop’s growing cycle varying depending on geographic location and climate. In Mzansi sugar cane has a 12-month cycle and can be harvested anytime between March and December.

Sugar cane is not sowed at the start of the season but is grown from cuttings or leaving parts of the previous stalks in the ground to regrow another season. During the growing season the cane must be supplied with enough water, so if the rainfall in your area is not sufficient it must be supplemented with irrigation water.

sugar cane farming
Sugar cane is a very labour intensive crop to farm with, as all the canes need to be cut manually with a cane knife. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Fertiliser application is one of the more expensive aspects of establishing and maintaining a sugarcane crop. This crop also requires a comprehensive disease, weed and pest control regime.

As mentioned before, sugar cane needs to be cut manually when harvesting. This means that harvesting can take a long time and is very labour intensive.

“One of the things you must make sure of is that the cane goes to the mill while it is still fresh,” Mbuyazi says. The cane has to be loaded onto trucks and driven to sugar mills immediately.

This is because sugar mills pay for the sucrose in the canes, and the longer the canes are in the sun they might break down or lose some of the sucrose inside of them.

ALSO READ: Sugarcane leader: ‘Nothing happens without a woman’

Market for sugar cane

One of the biggest things you must consider before starting to farm with a new crop is the market for your product. You need to know who you will sell to, and if they will buy your crop. If the market is already saturated with the crop you want to farm with, you might not be able to find a place to sell it.

In the case for sugar cane, Mzansi’s farmers sell their cane directly to sugar cane mills. The South African sugar industry is one of the world’s leading cost competitive producers of high-quality sugar, and SASA lists 14 mills that buy sugar cane from farmers in our cane growing areas.

The market for sugar cane in South Africa is “well and good,” according to Mbuyazi. In his area in Empangeni, they supply to Tongaat Hulett who then take the cane and mill it to make sugar.

Mzansi's sugarcane industry makes an important contribution to the national economy, given its agricultural and industrial investments, foreign exchange earnings, its high employment, and its linkages with major suppliers, support industries and customers. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Mzansi’s sugarcane industry makes an important contribution to the national economy, given its agricultural and industrial investments, foreign exchange earnings, its high employment, and its linkages with major suppliers, support industries and customers. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“I believe as well that there are other by-products that are made from sugar cane stalks,” he says. “But we don’t get paid for that. We only get paid for sugar, sucrose, that is generated from the sugar canes.”

Mbuyazi also says that the sugar cane price is regulated by the industry, so that means you are secure in knowing that the price for your crop will not fluctuate suddenly, or that your mill pays less for your canes than another mill would.

“Based on that the market is good,” says Mbuyazi. “Because the miller will always want to take sugar cane.”

The sugar producing mills supply the local and export market with the sugar cane from local markets.

Tips from a sugar cane farmer

“I wouldn’t say it is easy to farm sugar cane,” says Mbuyazi. “It takes a lot.”

“Most people like easy money, and farming is not easy money,” he says.

Mbuyazi says you need to have passion and dedication to farm with sugar cane, it must be one of your main drivers.

“Remember, farming is a lifestyle of its own,” he says. “It really does take a lot of hard work to do, and to do it properly.”

But, despite all of this, Mbuyazi says he would still encourage people to farm with sugar cane.

“If you are prepared to get yourself dirty, I would definitely encourage people to start farming [with sugar cane],” he says.

ALSO READ: Sugar cane could be sweet source for aviation biofuel

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