The proverb ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’ represents the way of life for a single-parent mother who farms on rural land where hardship is no stranger to local producers. The Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) Emerging Beef Farmer of the Year for the Eastern Cape 2016 is an impressive woman named Tembeka Mbeshu.

Farming
Tembeka Mbeshu buys vegetable seedlings whenever an opportunity arises.

FarmBiz visited Mbeshu on her farm, Eensaam, on the sloping sourveld hills and among the pine trees of the Chris Hani District Municipality of the Eastern Cape. The farm is situated roughly 25km from the town Elliot in the valley of the Slang River, and to the north-east the sky is dominated by Gatberg, rising 440m above the valley below.

Overcoming obstacles

Mbeshu recounts how she managed to achieve this honour, despite being a 44-year-old female farmer facing adverse conditions. “By the grace of God, I’m farming and being a provider.” The ARC award was not something she expected. “I was surprised when the ARC first paid me a visit on the farm, showing an interest in what I’m doing.”

Mbeshu’s husband was older than her, and together they began renting land from a farmer in the mid-1990s. “In 2003 the government allocated a 265-hectare farm to us. We started out with seven Nguni and bought a bull from one of our neighbours. We also bought Merino sheep, but had to give it up due to the jackal problem. After the Nguni, we moved on to Bonsmara cattle. When my husband passed away, I was left with bringing up three children and continuing with the farming.”

Unfazed by the lack of funding and having to make difficult choices, she took up the reigns and set out to farm on her own. “If I have to slaughter an animal, I just get on with it. When you are a farmer, there is no time to be squeamish about such things.” Over the years, she has established good relations with neighbouring farmers and received some good advice on certain aspects of production. “They have been truly helpful, and I will always be extremely grateful and indebted to them.”

Managing the resources

One of the major challenges on the farm is the lack of electricity and drinking water at the farmhouse. “We make do with rainwater tanks for human consumption. There is a river and a fountain not so far from here where we fetch water for household use, as well as for the pigsty and chicken coop which are within the vicinity of the house.”

Mbeshu also runs a chicken coop.

Mbeshu believes the reason why she is still in business comes down to managing various different projects simultaneously. “Look after the soil, because that’s where your money is, but also make the most of what you have and what your hands find to do.” Furthermore, she manages each project with determination to succeed, “almost as if it is the only operation on the farm”.

Animal husbandry

Mbeshu’s predominantly Bonsmara-type cows add up to roughly 30 animals that graze extensively on the surrounding sourveld. There are some Nguni- and Bonsmara-cross Simbra heifers as well. “The cattle have helped me to give my children an education,” she says. “The Bonsmara breed is easily managed and possess a good temperament. They also don’t give any trouble when they calve and are good mothers. But farming with cattle means checking on them daily.”

These Bonsmara cows are expected to calve in October this year.

As the conversation turns to water availability again, she notes: “There is no water in the camp where we are standing right now, or any dams on the farm for that matter. Fortunately, we have some fountains – a true lifesaver.” It often snows on the farm during the harsh winters. That is when she usually starts giving the cattle winterfeed from March onwards. She also makes use of well-known feed producer, Voermol’s products and feeds them lucerne when possible.

“The cows will be calving in October, as I don’t have the means to give them special feed should they calve in the tougher winter months.” At the time of our interview, she was keeping some calves in a camp near the house, next to another camp where two bulls were grazing. “Each year, I send some cattle, like the heifers that don’t calve, to the feedlot in Elliot. From there they are sent to the abattoir.”

Small-scale farming

Another means of income is the pigs and broiler chickens, which are sold mostly to the villagers who live nearby. “It’s a good business, as numerous ceremonies are held in the village throughout the year and they usually need meat for these events.”

Farming with pigs can supplement income during hard times.

Mbeshu grows vegetables throughout the year. The area planted under vegetables comprises of a small piece of land in the village, where someone keeps an eye on it. “At the moment I’m growing cabbage, but at other times it can be potatoes, spinach, maize or other types of vegetables.” These are also purchased by the villagers who live miles away from larger centres and who are often without reliable transport.

At the time of visiting Mbeshu, she had been contracted to work part-time on another farm which was approximately 10km away in the direction of Maclear. She was among other workers who were cutting wattle trees, earning a much-needed additional income. During that time, she paid a young woman to keep an eye on her chickens. “I need the extra income, as some fences are down and we aren’t getting any help from the government in this respect.” – Carin Venter, Farmbiz

For more information, contact Tembeka Mbeshu on 073 825 6795.

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