A true mentor is not someone who helps you with every aspect, but someone who teaches you skills that can help you lead your life independently. If there is one thing that Grain SA’s mentorship programme has achieved, it is to establish true mentors who are changing the lives of many aspiring farmers.
Passion becomes profession
Mr Luke Collier, a native of the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast, grew up on a farm where his father, a sugarcane producer, is still farming. After completing his school career, he worked abroad for a few years and then returned to start his own business. However, with farming being in his blood, he eventually returned to Kokstad in 2008 to run a farm focusing on beef, sheep, maize, wheat, cabbage and potato production.
When Luke was approached by Ian Househam to become involved in Grain SA’s mentorship programme as a mentor and trainer because of his farming background, he initially found the thought a bit overwhelming. Once he discovered what the programme was about, he realised that this was the greener pastures he had been looking for.
‘I initially thought it would be nice to help advance farmers, but I discovered that this programme is making a fundamental difference in people’s lives. When you see the actual outcome of this programme – helping a farmer with 1 ha change his yield from 20 bags of maize a year to 120 bags – you realise it ultimately has an impact not just on their lives, but on your own.’
To Luke the programme boils down to building relationships and changing lives – something he has always been interested in and is passionate about. ‘The only way the agricultural industry can move forward is by helping to develop emerging farmers,’ he states. This is what Grain SA’s mentorship programme entails.
‘It is an extremely rewarding job as you can make a tangible difference in farmers’ lives. It is not just about advising someone on how to run their farm; it is an act of physically helping change their lives,’ he says about the programme he was involved in up until the end of 2017 – mentoring 216 farmers.
He formed close relationships with the farmers and can pop in anytime for a visit over a cup of tea. To him one of the most moving examples of the bonds that were formed, was when he was asked to be involved in the funeral arrangements for one of his farmers who was born in 1922 and who passed away in 2018.
Converting practices, changing lives
Through interaction with the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), Luke says it has become clear that the Grain SA Mentorship Programme plays an essential role in people’s lives. The programme is providing food security in rural areas where some households have more than 20 members who have to be fed off 1 ha of maize.
‘To see the joy that the increase in yield through improved agricultural practices brings to them, really tugs at your heartstrings. You realise that you are essentially helping to feed a large family – providing food for their table and sometimes even a small income,’ he shares.
In the area where he was involved, Luke found the three key areas requiring change to be the following:
- Changing old school practices. The saying goes, old ways don’t open new doors. Changing the mindset of the farmers to implement better agricultural practices, was one of the biggest challenges Luke encountered. As the farmers realised that these new methods, like planting open pollinating varieties and using modern seed and chemicals, were paying off, they became more committed.
- Transforming and advancing tillage practices in these rural areas where very little tillage is usually done.
- Getting farmers to realise the importance of the theoretical side. To Luke this is as important as the practical side. Farmers were required to attend the study groups where chapters were studied and discussions about everything – from climate and agricultural practices to marketing – ensued.
See first-hand results
In Luke’s groups a different trial plot was nominated each time. With the theoretical knowledge in hand, the information was taken to the field to practice and then see first-hand results of what was conveyed and discussed in the study groups. Here the theory could be replicated in the field. Being fluent in Zulu and Xhosa made his task much easier as it is crucial that farmers understand why the mentor is saying the things he is saying.
America’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson, said, ‘We must open the doors of opportunity, but we must also equip our people to walk through those doors.’ Luke walked through the door of opportunity opened to him by Ian Househam and held the door open to ensure that under his mentorship farmers were better equipped, their lives were improved and food security was addressed.
When Ian relocated to New Zealand, Luke was appointed as the Grain SA provincial co-ordinator for the Eastern Cape and he has been stationed at the Kokstad office for three years.