The 2019 Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year was announced at the annual congress of the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union, Kwanalu, which was held at the Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg.

The title was awarded to 38-year-old Eshowe sugarcane farmer, Simon D’Aubrey, at the event, which was attended by Kwanalu members, farmers, industry leaders, agricultural businesses and representatives from Agri SA.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Simon will represent KZN in the Toyota Agri SA National Young Farmer of the Year competition next month. In an effort to secure the sought-after national title, as well as a brand new Toyota Hilux Single Cab, he will compete against top farmers from all nine provinces.

“We are heartened by the positive attitude that all our finalists displayed and are encouraged that they all view social development and land reform as an opportunity rather than a challenge. It is very exciting to see young farmers who want to make a difference. With farmers like these in KZN, we can only look forward,” says Kwanalu CEO, Sandy La Marque.

Simon’s family farm

Simon D’Aubrey, the 2019 Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year.

Simon, the third generation to farm on Arcadia Estate in Entumeni, Eshowe, joined the family farming business in 2013. Today he is the sole director; he is a 33% shareholder in the property company and a 100% shareholder in the operational company. Simon is responsible for all farm operations of both Arcadia Estate and his neighbouring farms. He holds a BTech degree in Agriculture and a degree in Property Development, with honours in Construction Management. 

Simon describes himself as “not your typical farmer”. He travelled extensively and worked in many places around the world before settling, at the age of 32, on the farm he grew up on, with his wife, Emily, and their twin daughters.

Ninety percent of his farming enterprise is sugarcane, with 8% dedicated to timber. The remainder covers contracting and bottled water, firewood and cash crops on fallow lands. Simon is currently working on diversifying the business’ income stream away from sugarcane to alternate crops. He also runs an indigenous nursery with his brother.

Challenges and goals

“The challenge, and the goal as a farmer today, is to remain relevant while maintaining positive cash flow and ensuring bank balances remain healthy. Pending a cannabis licence to grow hemp for CBD oil, we are ready to plant our first hemp crop. We are also currently running a test plot on organic lemons to determine viability, and have eight hectares of avocado on order for 2021,” says Simon.

“We are focused on becoming more mechanised, for example, by restricting cane lands to the flat areas, timber to slopes above 30 degrees, and high-value crops in close proximity to water and good soil,” he explains.

Simon’s philosophy is be kind to your land, honour your employees and be open to change. He places strong emphasis on preserving the land for future generations and sustainable practices, and manages his farming methods by treading lightly on the natural environment and treating soil with care.

Producing healthy food

“We aim to maintain the ecosystems we currently have and to improve them over time through the use of less harmful insecticides and weedicides, the removal of alien vegetation and the replanting of indigenous trees. We maintain our terrace banks and waterways and if there is soil erosion or wash, this is dealt with immediately, generally with advice from the SASRI Extension Officer. Cane fields are currently being pulled back from major water courses and wetlands are being rehabilitated in the valley areas of the farms,” he says.

“The onus is on us farmers to sustainably produce healthy food, free of pesticide and insecticide residue, for our burgeoning population at a competitive cost. Our predecessors managed to improve the yields at all costs. However, I believe it is the role of the new generation to maintain those yields without the use of harmful agrochemicals while farming our land with a long-term vision in mind.”

Transforming the industry

Simon places great importance on his role in transformation in the industry and works closely with the local community bordering his farms. He assists with the cutting, hauling and land preparation of cane for eight small-scale growers, ploughs and cuts grass for the community in the off-season, and supplies drinking water and firewood during the drier months. He also assists with road maintenance.

“I have a good relationship with our chief, Nkosi Dube. I also assist with advice on farming techniques and provide a link between my neighbouring small-scale farmers and the sugar industry,” says Simon.

Innovation contributes to sustainability

Simon is also involved in organised agriculture. He serves as vice-chairman of both the Eshowe/Entumeni Farmers Association and the local Pest and Disease Committee and represents the EEFA at cane grower meetings.

“I believe that young farmers that contribute positively to the South African economy need to be both businessmen and farmers. Sustainability is key when working with natural resources. Young farmers need to be innovative to maintain yields without the use of agrochemicals, to ultimately provide food to a market that is very aware of what they eat, where it comes from and how it is grown and processed.” – Press release, Kwanalu