It took a decade of blood, sweat and tears to turn a project that undoubtedly spiralled towards failure, into a lucrative and thriving business.
Born and bred in Limpopo, 29-year-old Tshilidze Matshidzula has been establishing himself as a ‘star’ dairy farmer at Little Barnet Trust farm situated on the outskirts of Alexandria, in the Eastern Cape.
Known as ‘Chilli’ among his peers, he oversees the day-to-day running of the farm as Little Barnet’s operational manager. A graduate of the Tshwane University of Technology, he arrived in 2007 as a 19-year-old student at Little Barnet, doing his practical learnership under the guidance of Walter Biggs, who is also his mentor.
Being a driven type of person, Chilli confides in Stockfarm about his fear of getting old, and not achieving the goals he has set. Among those who know him well, he is deemed a workaholic. So, adhering to well-meant advice, he recently went on ‘holiday’ which took him driving around the countryside for three days, before turning the car’s nose back to Little Barnet farm to take up the reigns again.
A faltering land reform project
Chilli came on board as a share-milker before he bought out some of the Little Barnet Trust beneficiaries. Taking a few steps back into the past: An enticing challenge was handed to a group of 18 farmers of the Longvale Trust. Two years into it, the trust was on its way to establishing a respectable dairy operation, with more pastures developed, and cows bought in. But, when the trustee was murdered, an exodus of shareholders followed.
Those who remained were left with the conundrum of how to continue. Chilli, however, held fast. Having come on board as a share-milker, he found a way to save the project by taking out a loan and purchasing a 40% stake in the trust.
A risky move pays off
The move was risky and bold, but it paid off. Almost a decade later, Chilli manages the successful farm which is basically 100% operational, and which he partly owns. He manages twelve full-time and four part-time staff members.
With the help of Walter Biggs, he has played a vital role in building it up from the ground to become a multi-million rand business. Where others shied away from the task of saving a faltering project, he revelled in the challenge and saw potential in the land and in himself.
“Starting out on the farm, we hardly had any infrastructure and the whole place required deforestation. The dairy operation provided constant challenges,” says Chilli.
However, the same farming venture that started out with 49 cows, today boasts 1 038 animals in the herd (milking herd and followers) producing approximately 11 000 litres of milk a day at the newly built cow milking facility. “We farm intensively and keep Holsteins and Jerseys. However, we are moving to crossbreds, as they just seem to be faring better overall.”
Recordkeeping of the milking operation is being kept strictly, systematically and daily. The cows are milked twice daily and the proceeds are allocated to Coega Dairy. “We have a set target and enjoy a great relationship with them.”
With reference to Coega Dairy, Chilli was awarded their Mangold Trophy at last year’s Agri East Cape Congress in Port Alfred. It is presented to the best-conserved farm in the Bathurst area, and which is one of two annual prizes awarded by the Bathurst Conservation Committee (BCC).
“The finances are managed very strictly, and hardly a day goes by that I do not report our daily operations to Walter. Another important, and often overlooked, factor that is part of the success we enjoy is coming together for regular meetings.”
The workers are employed based on someone who has at least a matric certificate. “The employees at Little Barnet work with machines and animals, and every person on this farm knows precisely what is expected of them. I also believe in keeping communication channels open, and there is ample opportunity for doing this.”
Obstacles in the way
Little Barnet consists of 342ha and Chilli mentions that they are now doing twice as much as what one can do on a farm of this size. To expand the farming enterprise, they rent farmland which is adjacent to Little Barnet. “We would like to buy more land at some stage, but everything happens at the right time and in the meantime we do what our hands find to do.”
“The impact of the drought in our province is affecting us like all the other farmers. We manage a small piece of irrigation, but it isn’t nearly enough to feed all our animals, and we buy most of the animal feed.”
Chilli cannot emphasise enough the problems they face with regard to sporadic theft and break-in incidents. “We have installed monitors to try and improve the situation, and we have a guard 24/7. Sometimes I go out at night to do some patrolling myself.” He believes that is largely due to organised crime, as his neighbours constantly face the same problem.
Reminiscing about farming
“In the old days, it was easier in some ways, but today one must be able to take the economy into account if you are serious about farming. What is the biggest threat ever in farming? I believe it is cashflow.”
“But having said that, it is still true that anyone can be a farmer, but only if they can farm with passion. I know people who took up farming, with no training or formal education in agriculture, who made a huge success of it. The secret, I think, is knowing what you want and going for it.”
Asked whether he would ever consider running anything other than a dairy farm, Chilli considered the questions carefully before replying: “Dairy farming is my trade, and what I know I’m good at. If I would be given a choice to diversify, then I would consider a partnership which would still centre around dairy farming.”
The determined young man, who did not believe that he was good enough to be considered the overall winner, was also 2016 Toyota Young Farmer of the Year.
He has been a prominent member of the Alexandria Dairy Study Group for many years and, as a member, attends Agri Eastern Cape meetings while he still works on his B-Tech degree in his spare time.
In June this year, Beautiful News (www.beautifulnews.co.za) revealed a short film of the man who started out on the forlorn fields of Little Barnet, turning it into a thriving business.
For more information, contact Chilli on 084 081 1641, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. –Carin Venter, Stockfarm