Welcome to the very first edition of SugarBytes.

For me, this opening line is one I want to float on for a while … it’s taken a VERY long and lonely road to get to it but I am hugely grateful that now I have you on this road with me. And I hope that the road post this statement is full of adventure, learning and happy sharing for all of you who have hopped aboard. So, again – welcome ! I look forward to many many editions to come, none of which will allow me to welcome you to the very first ever again. Floating done. Thank you for indulging me.

Some of you would have seen my presentation at your latest Local Grower Council meetings, where I presented SugarBytes and asked for the region’s support – as you have received this communication, your region obviously decided to support the initiative and for that, I am so grateful. I am committed to making this valuable for you – and again, your input as to how best to achieve that is welcome. You may also forward the email you received (that gave you the link to this page) to anyone you feel might be interested in receiving SugarBytes so that they can subscribe. (all I need is their email address)

On to business … I know you have MANY questions and I will now do my best to answer them. If there are any that I haven’t thought of, please just drop me a mail – debbie@sugarbytes.co.za or just go to the Contact Us tab on this website and use that friendly facility.

Perhaps these are a few of the questions you have, that I can answer now.

What is SugarBytes ? It is a fortnightly newsletter and website catering for the sugar industry – farmers in particular.

What is the purpose ? To give all sugar farmers the opportunity to learn from successful sugar farmers. It is hoped that, through the sharing of success, others will be able to improve their own practices and outcomes.

How will it look ? Every fortnight, I will place a fresh “Top Farmer profile” on this website, and send you a link via your local grower representatives. It will be a comprehensive report that I’ll compile after having spent time with a successful farmer, in their operation. It will have photos and as much information as they are willing to share about what they believe has made them successful. These profiles will be “banked” on the website where you’ll also find some other interesting information. Obviously, this is a new site and the content will grow as the enterprise does. Feel free to suggest what you feel would be useful content.

Who decides who the Top Farmers are ? The latest figures and the area managers. Farmers have been rated according to the formula: Tonnes x RV% divided by total hectares under cane. Yes, I have had many long discussions about the suitability and workability of this formula. (More in the story below) It must always be remembered that the main purpose of SugarBytes will always be to improve the industry as a whole by learning from those who are currently successful in it – the challenge in getting there is to discover who is worth learning from. Suggestions and comments on improving the formula are always welcome but it must also be remembered that I rely on very busy sugar industry staff who cannot divulge any figures to me. They all work to one agreed formula that needs to be simple and functional and give me the names of the top ranking farmers. None of these farmers figures are divulged – it is only important to me that they are farmers worth learning from … and of course, they need to be willing participants too. The individual areas decide who their Top Farmers are and then compare their figures to establish the Top 25 national growers.

Who am I ? No one really. I have been involved in sugar publications for the past 17 years and saw a need for this product so have taken the leap of faith to make it happen. I have extensive experience in publishing, advertising and business and I am learning a WHOLE lot more about sugar cane farming and the cyber world.

Background and structure: The SA sugar industry has 14 active sugar mills, spread throughout 4 main sectors (see details below). I have contacted each one of these 14 mill group areas with the request that I present the SugarBytes concept and get their participation. 4 areas are on board for now. (Gledhow, Pongola, Sezela and Umzimkulu) That’s 34% of the sugar cane farmers in the country and I am hopeful that the others will join shortly. Each of the participating areas has supplied a list of their Top 10 growers. Which, with 4 areas participating, gives us a pool of 40 growers. From there we needed to establish who the Top 25 cane growers in the country are. The highly variable growing conditions (the 4 sectors mentioned above) make it unreasonable to simply rank the Top 40 against each other based on the same formula that landed them in the Top 10 for their region so, at this point, we simply take a proportionate representation from each area:

Coastal (incorporating Gledhow, 30% of Sezela and 30% of Umzimkulu) 60% of the total participation is classed coastal and therefore 15 of the Top 25 farmers will be from this sector.

Inland (incorporating 70% of Sezela and 70% of Umzimkulu) 14% of the total participation is classed inland and therefore 4 of the Top 25 farmers will be from this sector.

Northern Irrigated (Incorporating Pongola) 26% of the total participation is classed Northern Irrigated and therefore 7 of the Top 25 farmers will be from this sector.

NB: I know that 15 + 4 + 7 = 26 … I have rounded the number up which allows us an extra profile if all farmers are able to be interviewed.

Ultimately I hope to have all the areas involved and welcome your input as to how best to achieve this. I also welcome you to pass this email on to your counterparts in areas that are not currently participating – I can add individual email addresses to my database and then they will receive the mails directly from then on. Right now, you probably received this email from your local grower representative – if you’d prefer to receive it directly, you also just need to send me your email address.

Once all the areas are involved, they will fit into the overall structure like this:

Area Number of farmers Sector

When all the areas are participating,

the Top 25 National Growers will be made up of

5 from the Northern Irrigated region,

2 from Umfolozi,

10 Coastal farmers and

8 Inland growers.

For now though, there will be

7 from Pongola

(the only Northern Irrigated area participating),

4 from Inland

(coming from Sezela and Umzimkulu’s inland farmers) and

15 Coastal farmers

(coming from Sezela, Umzimkulu and Gledhow)

Malelane 75 Northern Irrigated
Komati 74 Northern Irrigated
Pongola 120 Northern Irrigated
Umfolozi 73 Umfolozi
Felixton 77 Coastal
Amatikulu 106 Inland & Coastal
Noodsberg 121 Inland
Dalton 64 Inland
Darnall 95 Coastal
Gledhow 124 Coastal
Maidstone 60 Coastal
Eston 129 Inland
Sezela 100 30% inland, 70% Coastal
Umzimkulu 109 30% inland, 70% Coastal
1327

Formula used to rank the farmers

While chatting to the areas about their involvement, I also opened up the discussion around the formula used. There has been much valuable input and I will cover some of the main points below:

  • The environmentalist vs the profit-master.

The “best” farmers may not be the ones that perform well on yields and RV’s – the best farmers might be the ones who are leaving our environment with the least damage. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. The farmer who is cultivating to within a metre of a waterway or other natural resource, and thus yielding far higher per hectare, is not a “good” farmer in an environmental sense. For this reason, we tried to incorporate a way to factor in environmental aspects of a farming operation but, until all farmers are submitting accurate and recent SUSFARM reports, I could not find a way to quantitate his responsibility to the environment.

  • Farm Size.

On my “roadshow” to the areas, I realized that some farmers feel that size impacts the formula so I’d like to address that in an example:

Tonnes delivered x RV / total hectares under cane Small farm Large farm
Data Tonnes delivered

(used universal average for the hectares harvested – 70 tonnes / hectare x hectares harvested)

1400 tonnes 14000 tonnes
% RV (should be the same for the purposes of our example) 12 12
Total hectares under cane 20 hectares 200 hectares
Hectares harvested 20 hectares 200 hectares
  Tonnes x RV

 

168 1680
  Tonnes x RV

Divided by total hectares under cane

168 / 20 =

8,4

1680/ 200 =

8,4

Therefore a small farm can compete with a large farm for a spot in the Top 25.

Growing cycle

I also heard objections because of the varying growing cycles, so here is an example addressing that issue:

Tonnes delivered x RV / total hectares under cane 12 month cycle (full farm cut) 24 month cycle (half farm cut)
Data Tonnes delivered

(used universal average for the hectares harvested – 70 tonnes / hectare x hectares harvested)

3500 tonnes

(35t/hect x 100)

3500 tonnes

(70t/hect x 50)

% RV (should be the same for the purposes of our example) 12 12
Total hectares under cane 100 hectares 100 hectares
Hectares harvested 100 hectares 50 hectares
  Tonnes x RV

 

420 420
  Tonnes x RV

Divided by total hectares under cane

420 / 100 =

4,2

420/ 100 =

4,2

Therefore farms with different growing cycles can compete for a spot in the Top 25.

If there are any other concerns I will do my best to answer them. Please continue to keep in mind that the purpose is to learn from successful farmers rather than to get stuck on the figures themselves. I have asked the regions to remember that when they submit their lists of top farmers so there is also an element of subjectivity thrown into the rankings.

What type of questions will we be asking the farmers?

These will all be questions that I would imagine wanting to ask a successful farmer if I were a sugar cane farmer eager to improve my business, and will cover a range of sectors:

 Weather

How did you handle the drought ?

Do you irrigate ?

Is there a particular method that you prefer ?

How do you sync the weather and the irrigation ?

We are very far south to be growing sugar cane – why have you chosen this as a crop and how do you deal with the challenges of the weather overall ?

Supplements

What fertilizers do you use ?

Is there anything special / different about how and / or when you apply it ?

Do you believe they are essential to successful farming ?

Pest and weed control

What is your greatest challenge in this department ?

How do you deal with it ?

Do you follow a “prevention is better than cure” philosophy ?

Or rather a “deal with what’s active” approach ?

What steps do you take to ensure the environment is taken into consideration ?

Mechanisation

How do you deal with the effects of mechanization ? (soil compaction)

Are there specific types of equipment that you prefer? Reasons

What does your fleet comprise of ?

Have you employed any “new age” GPS driven equipment ?

Do you keep them until they fall apart or sell them young ?

Have you used green fuel ?

How do you keep the value of your equipment ?

Labour

How many labourers do you employ ?

Do they all live on your property ?

Have you ever had any labour issues ? Details

How do you maximize their efforts ?

Farm history

How long have you owned this farm ?

How many properties do you own ?

How many hectares do you have under cane ?

Other crops ?

Why do you choose sugar cane ?

Personal

Were you brought up on a farm ?

If you didn’t farm what would you do ?

Children / heirs to the business

When does a farmer retire and what does he do then ?

Pets

Education – what is important for a farming operation ?

Hobbies

Mentors / heroes

General

Are there things you can do when harvesting, loading and delivering to the mill that will affect your figures ?

Do you have any other pearls of wisdom for farmers who want to improve ?

If there was ONE element of your farming practices that you think is most responsible for putting you in this successful position, what would it be ?

Administration (Farmers are generally allergic)

Who runs your office ?

Do you have any pointers in this department ? (Tax / wages / accounting / data etc)

Any instances of fraud / advice on how to avoid it

Next edition

The next edition will be sent out on 22 Feb so be sure to spread the word and get your email addresses in to debbie@sugarbytes.co.za to ensure a direct delivery.

It will be the most exciting edition this year as it is the one in which we publish the Top 10 growers from each of our 4 participating areas, as well as the Top 25 National growers.

Thank you

A simple thank you is not enough and I will be sure to deliver a more substantial one when I visit farmers in your areas, but – for now: A huge big heartfelt thank you to every person who has been helpful and supportive in this venture. You know who you are and I am eternally grateful. I am motivated to work hard, if only to validate your investment of time and effort. Will be seeing you all soon.

Until next time,

Debbie