Our interview with vegetable farmer Kgomotso Ramatlo was supposed to be quite early in the morning, but her grumpiness got the best of her. The only incentive or imvul’umlomo (isiZulu for “mouthwash”) was a latte from Seattle which she’s addicted to.
“I literally went through withdrawal symptoms,” she says, explaining how she struggled to get the coffee from different fuel stations. They are far from her five-hectare farm in Withok Estates in Brakpan on the East Rand of Gauteng.
Sitting next to her Mahindra bakkie, Ramatlo lights up her cigarette. Her bubbly personality starts firing up, much like the cigarette smoke. She speaks in a gentle whisper.
“Now, everybody literally wants to be a farmer because we are making farming to appear glamourous,” she adds.
Social media with its visually appealing content is to blame, believes Ramatlo. She, too, isn’t exempted as her Instagram account bustles with carefully curated content. However, farming is often in sharp contrast to the instagrammable photos.
“I always say to people, ‘Please don’t come here to talk about farming because I do not have a beautiful farming story,’” she laughs loudly. “I am one of those people whom when you are done talking to about farming, you will either hate it or you will go in blindly.”
A traumatic hailstorm
After graduating from the Buhle Farmers Academy, Ramatlo planted her first crops – spinach, cabbage, and chillies. The year of 2020 was initially good for business. However, the optimism soon faded. In December that year, severe hailstorms damaged her infrastructure and produce.
It was game-over.
“How many of us who are new farmers, or even old existing farmers, who actually have the mental strength and the financial muscles or some little provision of cash for the worst-case scenario to cover salaries, repair structures and replant?”
The damage caused by the hailstorms left her with a feeling of numbness. She had been contracted by a client to plant about 20 000 heads of cabbages. “I was stuck with cabbages that had holes,” she says.
Ramatlo tried to sell them at Springs Fresh Produce Market, but she quickly realised that this decision was no different to a fresh wound sprinkled with salt.
“I remember my cabbages were going for half the normal price per cabbage head at the market – not because of the quality, but because of the cosmetics,” she says.
To rescue her business, she needed to make one of the hardest decisions.
“Now, the first thing you end up doing is letting go of people. This is the most expensive cost because these are people who did not do anything wrong. There was no money coming in and my personal savings for rainy days kept on dwindling.”
She says her client understood her dilemma and was generally pleased with the sample. He gave her a second chance to plant again. When her business revived, she supplied her client with about 5 000 heads of cabbages a month.
“I was happy, and money was rolling in. I even remember I had an out-of-body experience as I had to deliver at his distribution warehouse instead of the supermarket,” she adds.
But the challenges hadn’t simmered down. In September 2021, workers at the client’s company went on strike and the company had to close its doors for almost a month.
“The produce market was flooded with cabbages. A bag of cabbages was selling like R20,” she says, adding that when she tried to improvise, she ended up incurring more costs.
Thousands of cabbages rotted
“I literally watched 10 000 cabbages perish into the ground. I’d drive in the morning to the farm and watch the rotting cabbages.”
Even when she tried to repel the bad energies thwarting her growth, it seemed like an unwinnable exercise. “There is a Zulu saying that says, ushishiliza ngomdidi phansi (to be in a situation that looks impossible to overcome). It was literally how I was. I wondered if this is ever going to end.”
As a spiritual person, she felt that her ancestors had turned their backs on her.
“Through some prayers and phahlaring (to communicate with the ancestors), you’d tell them to calm down. Instead of words, it would just be tears,” Ramatlo says, describing the pain as unbearable. “I’d shout at my ancestors, ‘You guys are watching me to just suffer. You are making me a laughingstock!’”
With all of the misfortunes that Ramatlo endured in her business, why has giving up never been an option?
“I’ve gone too far to go back,” she says, recalling how she was forced to ask tough questions about her farming future. “Do I really want to do this, and do I really believe in where this is going?”
She adds that she couldn’t quit as farming afforded her epic rewards that were more valuable than material gains. “There is a certain level of peace that I get which I’ve never gotten in my entire life. There is just an unmatched level of sanity and peace. I discovered that farming was not just a mistake. It is something that came from my ancestors. It serves a greater purpose of everything that I am about in life.”
‘I am obsessed with chillies!’
She’s in a better place now. All her five permanent employees are back. Although not all of her five hectares are ploughed, she has planted sweet potatoes, tomatoes, beetroot, and green beans.
Every time when things did not seem to go right, one crop always proved to survive the test of time. “I am obsessed with chillies!” And for this reason, her tunnels are full of jalapeños, which she planted at the request of a client that needed constant supply.
“I operate in a small space, so I need to make sure that the space gives me all the returns that I want,” she says.
“The future is going to be very hot. Chillies is like my beautiful thing at the moment. I need to explore other kinds of chillies. I see myself as a fully-fledged commercial chillies farmer where I’d be able to get enough structures to be able to produce throughout winter and just specialise on chillies.”
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