nwga-grand-champion-communal-wool-farmers-from-the-upper-telle-shearing-shedRadical Transformation was the theme for the 5th Eastern Cape Communal Woolgrowers Association Congress, organised by the National Wool Growers Association (NWGA). It was hosted by the Wittebergen shearing shed in the Herschel, Sterkspruit district on 25 August 2016, and attended by over 1200 Eastern Cape communal wool farmers, the NWGA leadership and government representatives.

When you hear the words radical transformation, you definitely want to know more. The detail provided is that the Congress set out to develop an effective strategy to contribute to the radical transformation of rural economies through wool production, which includes land, grazing and infrastructure issues, genetic improvement and animal health.

The land aspect got me excited and I was not alone. This was one of the key draw cards that had motivated so many communal woolgrowers to travel long distances to get here. As we all know, well-managed land reform and small farmer empowerment is everyone’s business in the pursuit of a more secure South African future.

Many of the communal wool farmers in the Eastern Cape have proved their farming excellence over decades yet their applications for land and requests to be able to own land in the communal areas have gone nowhere.

An example of excellence in the 2015/16 season are the NWGA Grand Champions from the Upper Telle shearing shed in the Sterkspruit district where 66 farmers with 5600 wool sheep produced an average micron of 19.4 with a clean yield of 68%. Some of the larger farmers in this shed own over 700 sheep. The shed produced 95 bales and 3 bin bales, and brought in over R1.1million, achieving an outstanding R92.03/kg. The 2015/16 national average for commercial wool farmers is R77.40/kg and for communal wool farmers is R52.35.

One of the Upper Telle’s larger farmers, William Sephula, who attended the Congress, said: “We want farms but we haven’t got farms. I sent in all my forms years ago and tried to get an answer many times but nothing has ever come of it.”

He attributes their wool quality to their partnership with the NGWA and to their veld management. “We don’t have any fenced camps so we use shepherds to herd the sheep and carefully manage the grazing to avoid overgrazing,” explained Sephula who waited in expectation along with the group of 1200 to hear what one of the VIP speakers, the Acting Chief Director of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mathemba Gcasamba, would be sharing with them.

Before the Congress I was introduced to farmers and officials, and shown around the Wittebergen Shed by Zithulele Mbatsha, a senior production advisor for the NWGA in the Eastern Cape

Each month Mbatsha, who is part of a team of six production advisors, drive thousands of kilometres to visit hundreds of communal farmers. They report to the NWGA’s National Manager: Production Advice & Development, Dr Louis du Pisani who is based at the NWGA’s offices in Port Elizabeth. He attended the Congress, as did the entire NWGA office.

Mbatsha grew up in the rural village of Peddie, Eastern Cape, where he looked after sheep and cattle as a young boy. He well remembers how the communal sheep farmers back then would shear their sheep and keep the wool in plastic bags in their homes until the speculators came by.

“Xhosa people have farmed with wool for a very long time, but the marketing was all totally informal and the speculators would completely undercut the farmers. They paid them 20% to 40% of the value of their wool,” he explains.

The speculators would then class and bale the wool and make a large profit on the formal wool market in Port Elizabeth.

“There was no other option back then for the farmers, which is why I’m really proud of what the NWGA has done to change this, including partnering with the farmers on a genetic improvement programme since 2002. The result is that the communal farmers today are breeding better wool sheep and producing much finer wool, with an average of 19 microns, and achieving market related prices on auction as a result,” continues Mbatsha.

Farmers cannot enter the formal wool market with a few small bags of wool. They need a minimum of 10 to 20 bales – each bale contains 160 kilograms of wool – and they need to know how to shear it, class it and bale it professionally. It then needs to be transported to the formal wool auction in Port Elizabeth.

The NWGA has played a pivotal role in the organisation of the 24 000 Eastern Cape communal wool farmers into 1224 wool growers associations, with access to shearing sheds, several of which the NWGA has built with money from government, the Wool Trust and, in the past, offshore donors. Inside the sheds, the NWGA has installed classing tables, wool bins and wool presses.

“The farmers from several villages now come together to shear at the same time at the sheds in their region, as well as partnering with two large co-operatives, CMW and BKB, who manage the transport and auction side for them,” Mbatsha explains.

In addition to the NWGA, he mentions several organisations that have contributed to the programmes implemented in partnership with the Eastern Cape communal wool farmers, notably the Wool Trust, Cape Wools SA, Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform, National Department of Rural Development and Land Reform and various donors.

The genetic improvement programme, currently funded by the National Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, has had significant impact. At the start of this programme, the NWGA came to an agreement with the communal farmers whereby they swap an inferior ram in their flock for a superior ram bred by top commercial ram breeders. The NWGA contracts these breeders 18 months in advance to breed 3000 rams per year specifically for this project.

To date, more than 42 000 quality Merino rams have been added to the communal farmers’ flocks but they need more rams. The ultimate objective would be to double the number of rams. One of the recommendations made by the congress is for government to identify and come forward with ram-breeding farms that will be managed by communal farmers for genetic improvement.

We head into the impressive Wittebergen shearing shed, built a few years back after a storm destroyed the old stone shed. The farmers from this shed hold the award for overall winner for outstanding achievement in developing their sheep project for increased wool income for 2007, 2011 and 2015.

On the day of the congress the shed was used as the catering and eating venue. The catering teams were hard at work, preparing breakfast and lunch for the gathering – a sumptuous spread of imbiza-cooked mutton, beef, chicken served with vegetables, samp, rice and steam bread.

Starting time of the congress was 10am and many of the farmers were there well in advance, having travelled from all over the Eastern Cape.

Alongside the shed a large marquis had been erected with seating for over 1000 people. The sponsors, including one of the key sponsors, Talitha Pharma animal health products, as well as Zoetis, Molatek, Epol, Closamectin and Cowdens had set up stalls where they were sharing information and selling products. Zoetis was raffling two quality two-tooth Döhne-Merino rams for all farmers who purchased R500’s worth of products or more. And a full emergency unit and nursing team was on standby, with HIV/Aids advisors providing free condoms.

All credit to the excellent organisation by the Wittebergen Shed together with NWGA production advisor Asandile Rasmeni who looks after the Sterkspruit area.

He said: “My interest in wool farming developed when I studied at Grootfontein. After I graduated in 2009 I was taken on by the NWGA as Mbatsha’s intern and now I have my own area.”

Rasmeni said the main problem that the communal farmers are facing is a lack of grazing: “Many of these farmers have been farming with livestock for generations and individually have flocks of up to 1200 wool sheep, yet non-farmers are getting the land from government. This Witterbergen shed comprises about 50 farmers and some of them, such as Mrs Gloria Sithole, have won top awards for their wool.”

My next introduction was to the Chair of the Eastern Cape Communal Farmers, Andile Ndzendze, from the Mthatha region where he farms with Merinos. He said:

“We need the state to far more actively assist the communal farmers with more land, erosion control, roads and road maintenance, water projects and infrastructure, including shearing sheds, handling facilities and fencing for camps. This will lead to better veld management and better production, with a fixed lambing season in September instead of the rams running with the ewes all year round; you cannot lamb in mid-winter in these areas, it’s out.”

Ndzendze added that the government’s response to drought or disease outbreaks such as sheep scab is never enough and never on time: “They often arrive months later when it is too late,” he says. At this congress we are requesting a plan from the directorate of veterinary services for the control of zoonotic and contagious diseases in the Eastern Cape. These are basics and while the communal farmers bring up our side and buy in bulk the medicines and products we need for dipping and dosing, we need proper support from veterinary services.”

By 10.30 the seats in the marquis were filling up and by 11am the Congress kicked off, with addresses by a range of speakers, including the National Chair of the NWGA, Guillau du Toit and the Acting Chief Director of the Department Rural Development and Land Reform, Gcasamba Mathemba, who is based in East London.

Du Toit congratulated the communal farmers on the improvement in their wool and production over the past few years and for their commitment and contribution to the South African clip. He thanked the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform for its participation in the NWGA’s ram project and voiced the need to expand this.

He appealed to any of the communal farmers who are still selling to speculators to rather join the formal market and derive the benefits.

Mathemba took to the podium and opened on a high note, agreeing to increase the current supply of rams by 6000 per year bringing the number to 9000 rams per year for the communal farmers throughout the Eastern Cape. He also said that his department is open to discussing the establishment of short courses on record keeping and financial management for the farmers through the agricultural colleges. The question that came to mind is why this hasn’t been done already. Regrettably, what he had to say about land was equally questionable and entirely disappointing. It deflated all anticipation of ‘radical transformation’.

In response to the land reform process and why it is not yielding productive farmers, he said: “Sometimes the wrong information is supplied to government where people who are not farmers have applied for and received farms, and people are receiving farms in areas where they don’t live. This has not been checked because there are some officials who don’t want to work.”

This does not qualify as an explanation but the farmers were too respectful to challenge him at the congress.

As some sort of offering he said: “I will be inviting the national ministers of agriculture and land reform to meet with the national woolgrowers executive to discuss the beneficiation of land.” The gathering did not hold its breath. Outside of the congress I asked Mathemba whether there has been any progress in the discussion of land ownership in the communal areas.

“We are facing a land shortage in the communal areas because the households are expanding and there is also land invasion. We are in sincere discussion with the kings, traditional leaders and local government about land use but this is still ongoing. In the meantime the government is looking at means to help the communal farmers in the development of their enterprises and to expand on the progressive programme of the national woolgrowers association that we are part of here today. We are also looking at providing trucks to collect the wool bales directly after they are baled as theft of bales is a big issue.”

The congress ended at 2pm with the singing of Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.

Lunch followed and more opportunities to seek opinions.

A man who is very outspoken about the lack of performance and support from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, is the Deputy National Chair of the NWGA, Sipiwo K. Makinana from the Ugie district: “Farming is the foundation of this country yet the people who allocate land in this country have no clue about commercial agriculture. Give me three years in that portfolio and I will make sure that the correct farmers are given land.

Makinana bought his 358ha farm in 2001 from the government.

“It was just the land; there was no infrastructure, not even fencing. I had to develop it and I now have seven camps and grew my wool sheep numbers to 600. In my opinion all land reform beneficiaries should be able to buy their land. They should be observed for five years and if they are performing as farmers then they should be given the opportunity to purchase it.

“If I was in charge of land reform I would immediately consult with the NWGA, Grain SA, the red meat producers, the fruit and wine producers and all the formal bodies, and ask for recommendations of people who deserve commercial farms and who have the experience, commitment and passion required. These farmers would then be mentored by the commercial sector, just like the NWGA mentors the woolgrowers.

“We need the Cyril Ramaphosas and Jeff Radebes in government to play a far more proactive role in the land issue and to start investigating why it is such a mess and to sort it out. It is not that complicated and it is critical for all South Africans, including the youth, who will only become interested in agriculture once they see that we are making a decent living from farming instead of just struggling from year to year.

“The other issue we have to ask government to address is the rising stock theft because in many situations going to the police doesn’t help. This will only change if the President instructs that there must be full support for agriculture, food security and the farmers. Then all the ministers and provincial premiers would need to start performing.”

The CEO of the NWGA, Leon de Beer, added: “It is critical to address the ownership of land, and this includes land in the communal areas because without ownership the farmers cannot get collateral to improve their farming. The NWGA has established trust and credibility with the communal farmers and we could easily help government to identify very suitable farmers as deserving beneficiaries. They are already farming successfully with sheep and cattle, and, being a national organisation, we could assist countrywide. As Mr Makinana says, it is not that complicated.”


From R1.5million to R233.6million

From earning R1.5million for the wool clip of 222 610 kilograms that they sent to the formal market in the 1997/8 season, the Eastern Cape’s communal wool farmers sent 3.5million kilograms to the formal market in the 2014/15 season, for which they earned R131-million and 4.46million kilograms in the 2015/16 seasons for which they earned R233.6million. Their average wool price achieved 68% of the national average at the auctions, with an increasing number of farmers achieving 90% of the national price.


Four million wool sheep

Since 1994 the NWGA has been a united association of woolgrowers from all over South Africa that speaks and operates as one group, including stud, commercial and communal wool farmers – numbering 24 000 in 1224 communities all over the Eastern Cape, including the former homelands of Transkei and Ciskei. They own over four million wool sheep, mainly Merino and Döhne-Merino-type.

Since 1997 the NWGA has worked hard with the communal wool farmers to improve their genetics, wool sheds and the management of their wool and finances. The improvement has benefitted men and women communal sheep farmers, ranging in age from 20 to 70-plus, with older farmers in the majority. Their flocks range from 20 to 1200 sheep.

The NWGA is encouraging government to set aside private land for communal sheep farmers who have proved themselves under trying conditions in the communal areas, with all the logistical issues of shared grazing.


Socio-economic impact of the formal wool market

The NWGA’s National Manager: Production Advice & Development, Dr Louis du Pisani says: “The socio-economic surveys conducted by the NWGA from 2004 on the impact of communal wool farmers being part of the formal wool market reveals an increase in household savings accounts from 49% to 84% today; and a decrease in the number of families having to borrow money for school fees, from 77% to 48%.