“I thought of all the glamorous franchises such as restaurants and cafés,” he says. “It was either going to be a health business or food business, because I felt like those industries will sustain longer. People will always want to maintain their health and they will always want to eat, so it was a safer career to get into.”
Ngcobo says he realised that his food business ideas needed bigger capital to materialise. As a result, he had to think carefully about his food-related career. In 2013, Ngcobo decided to garner the basics of farming by enrolling at Cedara College of Agriculture in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal (KZN).
“I was very surprised by the amount of exposure you get about farming management,” he says. His exposure to a great deal of farming information at Cedara led him to the start of his path to becoming a large-scale commercial farm manager.
Garnering commercial farm skills
To achieve his new goal, he worked part-time jobs during school holidays on numerous commercial farms across KZN. Between December in 2013 and July in 2014 he worked on a 50-hectare hazelnut farm.
“The most important lesson I learnt here was about land use planning, meaning you must know how to use the space, how to plan the landscape without damaging what you are farming.” In December of that year he worked on a dairy farm in Mooi River, a small township with a beautiful river that impressed the early European settlers in the 1850s enough that they called it “mooi” (pretty).
On this farm they milked over 400 cows daily. Apart from learning about livestock farming, he also gained experience in management and the numbers game. “I’ve learned about the economy of scale, meaning you will have to milk a certain number of cows before you can break even, and anything beyond that number will realise as profit. What matters is how you manage and how you raise those cows,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t need to be huge to be a commercial farmer, you just need a system that works for you.”
After obtaining his national diploma in Agriculture in 2016 and acquiring enough knowledge from different kinds of commercial farming operations, Ngcobo is now a large-scale commercial farm manager. He manages the operations of Tusokuhle Farming in Pietermaritzburg. On this 1 300-hectare black-owned farm there are about 108 workers, 40 of whom are permanent while the rest provide labour on casual basis.
Tusokuhle farming produce
On the farm there are 300 Nguni cattle. However, he does not specialise in livestock. His passion for animals has been quite minimal, ever since college.
In 2014, during his second year, he took part in a steer project where each student was given a bull calf to feed for a period of three months. His relationship with his assigned bull, which he named Otis, deteriorated quite remarkably, he remembers.
“My animal and myself never bonded. I was only able to manage it when it was 180kg, but when it grew I couldn’t manage it. It was not fun being dragged around by a fully-grown ox!”
“Ngcobo is proud that he’s meticulously succeeded in producing for this market consistently without any failure.”
Nevertheless, he learned the crucial lesson behind this exercise. “The whole process is that you have to learn what it takes to buy an animal at a certain value, feed it and sell it at another value. The project prepares you for bigger operations, it is like a unit cost principle.”
His focus in the farm now is a variety of seasonal vegetables such as cabbage, spinach, butternut, cauliflower, broccoli and green mealies. He’s also planted herbs such as thyme, mint and basil, with sugarcane planted on in about 300 hectares of the farm.
He supplies produce to vegetable markets across KZN. Some of the vegetables are sold at eThekwini Municipality Fresh Produce Market, Umsunduzi Fresh Produce Market and other retailers.
Exposure to retailers
His journey to large-scale commercial farming has enabled him to understand the complexities of preferences that the big retailers may have when buying produce from farmers. He says the big retailers prefer vegetables that conform to “a typical white house standard.”
“We produce good looking vegetables, something that is economic and could fit into the fridge. I have to produce cabbages big as 1.2kg if I want them to land in big retailers. But if I go over that, they won’t take it,” he explains.
“They will say ‘sorry you are over the weight’. But there are other big retailers where black consumers go to and in those retailers they do allow some of my big cabbages. Certain retailers don’t take into consideration that some black families may want a bigger cabbage [that would be big enough for the whole family],” he explains.
One needs sharp skills to be able to produce the right sizes for the market. It requires extra resources to avoid running at a loss due when produce is rejected by retailers and ends up rotting.
Ngcobo is proud that he’s meticulously succeeded in producing for this market consistently without any failure. “Not everybody has the skills of producing what they really want… It is quite surprising that I am able to produce for their standard as difficult as it is. We always aspire as farmers to have a direct market, because you get the value of what your produce is worth in the balance sheet,” he says.
He’s established different markets and mechanisms of distributing his produce when he overshoots the retailers’ requirements. “I have plenty of guys who fill up their vans and go to supply in the townships and rural areas. I also have people who deliver to feeding schemes. I have an endless amount of people to call,” he says.
His journey to large-scale commercial farming and exposure to some favouritism in the food industry has shaped his perspective. He is finding new sustainable and innovative ways of supplying his produce directly to the market. “It will probably take a lifetime. I want to be in control of one entire food production value chain. I want to plant vegetables and own my own pack houses, trucks and a brand that is recognised.”