Maseli Letuka (70) is an award-winning farmer who’s beaten the odds. He’s achieved what many small-scale farmers aspire to. However, after 20 years of struggling in vain to get secure access to land, he’s now considering giving up and selling off his livelihood.
He’s giving it another 6 years, says this leader farmer, who is also a director of the Tswelopele Asparagus Cooperative. He’s not one to easily give up, as evidenced by his recent registration, despite his advanced age, to study sustainable agriculture at Free State University.
He says he’s having sleepless nights about the future growth of his business: “How will I grow? I can only look to the future if I get my own land. If I don’t have land, I’ll stay where I am and when I get old I’ll sell all my assets.”
Letuka certainly hasn’t sat back, idly waiting for land to fall into his lap.
He’s approached the Land Bank countless times and is on the list of close to 5 000 people in his area queuing for land through the PLAS (Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy) initiative. He is doubtful whether some of the people who acquire this land can even farm and if it can work for the country in the long run.
Despite the deep desire to own his own land one day, Letuka lives a peaceful life. Growing up, he never considered farming, even though he was born and raised on a farm in Bethlehem in the Free State. Today, however, it’s hard to get him to stop talking about his sindra cattle and merino sheep, not to mention his specialty, dry beans.
“My family is just that old type of family. My father worked on a dairy farm in Bethlehem and my mother raised the children,” says Letuka.
After matriculating from Tiisetsang High School in Bethlehem, Letuka moved to Qwa Qwa to complete his teachers diploma at Tshiya College of Education. He says: “Fortunately after completing college I started teaching and worked in Qwa Qwa as a teacher for 26 years, until I resigned in 1998.”
He says it was difficult to accept the changes that the democratic era brought to education in South Africa. “Things were very stressful. People were now starting to misbehave and the administration changed, and as the older people we could not cope with the situation. That’s when I decided to resign from teaching.”
Farming after more than two decades of teaching
He had started farming on weekends in 1989. “I started developing that love for animals. The older Qwa Qwa government purchased land from the republic and the land was resized. People were interviewed and land was allocated on lease basis and they were subsidised for six years,” says Letuka.
Unfortunately, he did not qualify in 1989 when the first batch of farms were released. He says the department recognized his farming knowledge, but giving him a farm meant he would need to pay rent and employees. His salary as a teacher regrettably could not cover these costs. Letuka understood that from there he had to go back and save money.
“It took me time, even until today,” he says. He succeeded to get a piece of land through a partnership and in 1998, he sold the land he acquired with another farmer. “I took my share and he took his share and that’s when I started leasing land and began looking for my own land,” he adds.
Since then Letuka leased land on contract basis, and when the contract expired he would move and farm on another piece of land. Letuka says when he started farming by himself he started progressing. “I was alone and things were better because I’m not reporting to anyone and I could make the decisions,” he adds.
How do you farm without your own land?
For Letuka it wasn’t an easy road. “When my partner and I sold the farm I told him I’ll take the assets and you take all the cash. He agreed and I’m still working with those assets today. They are even better than before, I started with one tractor and now I have four tractors, but still I don’t have land,” Letuka says.
“Land is a big issue for me, because I went to the Land Bank I don’t know how many times,” he says. According to Letuka, raising money to buy land is tough particularly when you work for the government. “You stand in a queue to get these PLAS (Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy) farms. In this region in the Free State in Thabo Mofutsanyana District Municipality there are already about 5 000 applicants. If I’m number 5 000, when will I get the land? After 30 years? I doubt whether I’ll still be living after 30 years!”
About whether he will get land within the next few years, Letuka is filled with doubt.
He believes that it’s unfortunate that politicians don’t go to school to study politics. “It is very unfortunate, because everyone is coming with their own mind and that mind must be tested. Now they are testing their minds with us, and time is against us.”
He doubts whether all the people who say they need land can work the land. “Do they know what their land entails? They can succeed to get land but who’s going to work the land? Nobody.”
Letuka says his biggest drive is pure passion for agriculture. He’s managed to lease land in Kestell, Free State where he successfully breeds his sindra cattle with his landlord.
“Agriculture is a cool business. What I like about farming is there is no stressful competition.” Letuka sticks to his speciality, which is dry beans, and continues to plant even though other farmers are producing it too. “Fortunately I have good contacts with the Dry Bean Producers’ Organisation (DPO). They’ve also honoured me in 2015 for being the good emerging farmer for planting dry beans.”
Letuka believes in the power of information. He says that this is the best weapon that he can have, even more than experience. “Experience, coupled with knowledge, will make you a better farmer.”
Letuka says his biggest drive is pure passion for agriculture.
Putting his money where his mouth is, Letuka recently registered to study sustainable agriculture at Free State University, surprising some people. “I say give me 12 months and I’ll give you results!” he says to the naysayers.
Currently he has a lease contract with “an honest person”, but he dreads the time when the contract will expire. Then, what happens next?
Age is against him, he says. “If I take another six years on that farm then I’ll be 76 years old. What will I do at that age? But if I can get my own land now, I can put a succession plan in place very soon. My son, who is very interested in farming, can come and run everything while I am alive.”