We look to the intricacies of Sugarcane Farming in the Midlands for this edition’s Farming Feature and just how a husband-and-wife team makes a huge difference in achieving business success. And did we mention they produce their own handcrafted rum?
Words by: Brad and Marisa O’Neill, & edited by Nick Nel.
Photos: Marisa O’Neill
Brad and Marisa O’ Neill proudly share their little slice of Mkhuzane magic, Seafield Farm, with us. Seafield, ensconced in the undulating hills of the Mkhuzane Valley, may be termed a medium-scale farm in size, with 210.6 hectares under sugarcane.
Seafield has consistently delivered high yields as well as above-average quality cane, which is measured as Recoverable Value (RV). Over the past ten years, we have achieved an average of 110 tons per hectare with an average RV of 13.20. Over the last 20 years, since the introduction of the RV system in 2000, we have averaged 109 tons per hectare with an average RV of 13.30.
As the figures proudly boast on our behalf, we have been blessed with remarkable consistency, even though we have experienced adverse weather conditions like frost, drought, and more recently and dramatically, snow. We are most fortunate that Seafield has deep, well-drained, red Hutton soils, which have an average of 50% clay content and are naturally high in organic matter. These good soils, married with a mean annual rainfall of over 900ml, as well as the application of best management practices, ensure that we are able to continue achieving optimal crop yields.
Our philosophy revolves around the simple to say but constantly demanding insistence on sustainability. These sustainable farming techniques include compulsory fallow cropping of every field for at least a year. This is best practised when the old sugarcane is eradicated in order to break the mono-cropping cycle and thus create the layer wherein we give back to the soil by means of:
● applying lime to correct potential acidity problems
● adding organics such as chicken manure
● planting a multi-species, green-manure crop which includes legumes, non-legumes, and brassicas to enrich the soil
● adding organic matter and fixing Nitrogen levels
● controlling weeds, pests, and disease
● preventing soil erosion
All of this will be incorporated back into the soil before the sugarcane is replanted. Despite the fact that sugarcane is a ratooning crop, we believe it is vitally important to apply these sustainable farming techniques whenever possible. This ensures that we – and well beyond us as longevity begs – will be able to continue farming successfully for many years to come.
A good friend of mine, and a local Kiwi Farmer, shares the same philosophy as me: “We are mere custodians of this land. It is up to us to ensure its sustainability for future generations.”
Regular analysis of soil and leaf samples is a crucial step in determining the correct formula of fertilizers that should be used. These fertilizers comprised predominantly of macronutrients should preferably also include their diminutive counterparts, micronutrients, as a means of balance and stasis is sought at this stage. As fertilizer is one of the single most expensive outlays, it is extremely important that the precise rate of the correct blend is applied to ensure optimal tonnages and healthy crops. We have spent a great deal of energy and thought to calculate what we believe to be our best-fit fertilizer regimen for Seafield Farm.
Constant and vigilant attention to weed control is also of vital importance, as competition for moisture and nutrition is increased if weeds are not eradicated. The negative effect on yield would then be obvious and is easily – albeit painstakingly – avoidable by means of sensible, best practice weeding. This appeals to Brad’s ever-so-slight, healthy dose of OCD when it comes to how the farm should look and run.
We have a seed cane nursery on the farm, which we monitor carefully so that we know only the healthiest, inspected seed cane (free from pests, disease, and varietal off-types) is used for our replant programs. These varieties are arduously selected to suit the soils and climatic conditions of our farm.
Another significant factor in maintaining the production and profitability of our cane enterprise is the fostering of a mutually respectful bond between management and employee. We have a very low staff turnover, and we believe engendering this happy labour force is a cornerstone to developing a hard-working, productive labour force. We also belong to a harvesting syndicate, together with neighbouring farmers, and this has proved efficient and cost-effective.
We are very proud of Brad recently being awarded the distinction of the 2021 Toyota Kwanalu Young Farmer. Brad, typically modest and always willing to downplay his own efforts, suggests this accolade is surprising for him, but a quiet word with friends and the community in which the O’Neill’s are immersed suggests otherwise. Known for his Germanic oversight and genuine care – for his farm, his community, and our collective future – this honour seems entirely befitting a duo who exudes passion, as this husband-and-wife team really do lean mutually against one another.
That passion led to our next exciting project when, in 2018, we embarked on an exhilarating venture that symbiotically dovetails with, and diversifies, Seafield Farm. Thus, Sugar Baron Craft Distillery was born. We follow the traditional Agricole style for producing our handcrafted rum. The essence of freshly harvested, hand-cut sugarcane is extracted, fermented, and bottled on-site at our distillery to create only the finest product.
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