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Mon Sep 01 23:04:41 SAST 2014

Farm trainees milk mentor's support and experience

Suthentira Govender | 01 April, 2012 00:49
Retired dairy farmer Judy Stuart chats to one of her apprentices, Siyabonga Majozi Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN

A KZN dairy farmer is helping youngsters learn to work the land, writes Suthentira Govender

SUCCESSFUL dairy farmer Judy Stuart closed her lucrative farm operation seven years ago to train young aspiring black farmers - for free.

Stuart's bold project, in which she has invested her own money, has to date created more than a dozen skilled farm managers capable of owning and running their own farms.

Stuart, who lives in Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal, said she had no regrets about shutting down her farm, which once produced more than 1000 litres of milk a day, to kick-start the project run by her non-profit organisation, Future Farmers.

Her apprenticeship project selects ambitious youngsters from impoverished families without the means to pursue a tertiary education.

Stuart, 61, has also roped in other farmers in the province to mentor the trainees on their farms for two years.

After the mentorship programme the trainees are selected for further training on farms in Australia, Europe and the US.

The Underberg Farmers Association and Saville Foundation fund the overseas leg of the apprenticeship.

Training includes driving tractors, operating milking machines, controlling irrigation systems, dairy herd management and basic accounting.

"I believe that a manager and farm-owner should be able to do every job on the farm and do it well," said Stuart.

One of her former trainees, Sifiso Ntshisa, who worked on a farm in Germany, now manages one of the top dairy farms in the province which boasts about 100 cows.

Several other trainees are working on large dairy farms in California and on pig and sheep farms in Australia.

Stuart said it was crucial that her trainees gained international experience on large commercial farms.

"Most of South Africa's food is being produced by individual farmers who are running large commercial operations," she said.

According to agricultural experts, last year, of the estimated 37000 commercial farmers in SA, only about 20% produced 80% of the food consumed in the country.

And that's one of the reasons Stuart views her project - which she calls "the most valuable thing I have ever done in my life" - as crucial.

She added that her 30 years' experience in the farming industry and her successful dairy farm had become "insignificant" compared with the work she was doing now.

"There is no doubt that training young people is far more important," she said.

Di Smith, co-founder of Awesome SA, a body that supports organisations making a difference in South Africa, said she was amazed at Stuart's phenomenal contribution to the country's commercial farming sector.

In March last year, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform warned that food security and economic growth were being undermined by the collapse of farms that the government had bought for restitution or redistribution.

At the time, the minister of the department, Gugile Nkwinti, said more than 90% of the 5.9million hectares of redistributed farmland lay barren.

"We cannot afford to go on like that," he said.

A year earlier, Nkwinti said that very few of the farms transferred to black communities as part of the land reform programme were productive, partly owing to poor management.

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