Faith Like a Cabbage

I am unapologetic to all the sensitive readers out there. You really don’t have to read any further. Many people will disagree with my taking the piss a little bit, but it’s my blog and you welcome to stop reading now. This is just a place where I put some of my thoughts into words and share some of my life adventures. It may be a bit controversial at times, but hey what’s the point in having opinions and not sharing them.

I once saw a book written by some farmer who planted potatoes. The book had a really catchy title which inspired the title of this blog post. God gave this oke a private storm to help his potatoes through a drought so he could sell his crop for a big profit due to there being a shortage of potatoes. There was a shortage because all the other farmers were punished by god and got no rain, and therefore had a crop failure. I only read the back of the book, and I seem to remember that a movie was made too. Anyway this guy soon realised that there’s more money in making movies, and teaching other farmers how to pray for rain, than in actual farming. I presume that one the main reasons why the rainfall over the last 10 to 15 years has been generally above average, is that hordes of white farmers have been schooled by this guy on how to pray for rain. I suppose God must be really really angry this year because we have had a serious regression to the mean. It’s been the worst drought on record in our area and throughout much of the summer rainfall area. It has definitely been the most challenging year in my short 10 years of farming. God must be seriously pissed off at the moment! The drought has given us and most farmers a proper hiding. It’s got so bad now that even the farmer prayer meetings that I used to be notified of, seem to have stopped happening. Maybe that’s because it never really rains in winter so praying for rain in now is a bit pointless most of the time. Summer time is the time to pray for rain, your chances of success are a lot higher.

The nature of cash crop (veggie) farming is that of direct competition with your neighbouring farmers. If your neighbours run out of water then the price of cabbages or potatoes goes up. It’s probably the main thing I don’t like about cash crop farming. One man’s pain is another man’s gain. It’s not at all like dairy farming where we all work together to improve our efficiency. The way the pricing works is another aspect that might be my downfall in a different year. I’m not good at being hard-arsed and getting the best out of a business deal. Bluntly put, I’m too soft. I have taken a simple view on the pricing. If I have to sell 7000 cabbages a day, and I am only selling 3000, well then I send an sms to my buyers that my price has dropped from R9 a head and R50 a pocket, to R8.50 and R40. It’s pretty simple and the effects on your sales are dramatic. I suppose it will be more difficult getting the price up again, but that’s how I will work. Then a farmer phones you and asks why you undercutting the price? Well all I am trying to do is sell 7000 cabbages a day. It’s not undercutting, it’s just business.

The drought has given us an opportunity to use the little water we did have to plane a crop of cabbages. I probably won’t have it as good ever again where in the Kokstad area I almost have the market to myself. The price is about 20 to 30% off its all time highs but it’s still way higher than previous good years. I have hit the market almost perfectly which for a first attempt is very very lucky.

Farming is full of ups and downs. This year has mainly been downs, with lots of very harsh lessons learned. What I have leaened is that if you are adaptable, there are great opportunities to be taken in a drought. To take those opportunities we needed water and less livestock. We now have both of those. We slaughtered our dairy herd in January and February, and we have planted crops. In a drought the price of crops increases sharply, and the price of milk stays more or less the same. Dairy cows are a liability in a drought, and if we still had our entire herd, we would be in very serious trouble. With a moderate debt load we could have survived, but in our situation we can’t afford for things not to go well. What pushed us into slaughtering our herd, other than the drought, was the fact that our herd got infected with Brucelosis last year. It’s an emotionally taxing disease to get rid of. It takes between 2 and 4 years of monthly blood testing, and culling of infected cows. Hence the reason we decided to cut our losses and slaughter everything on the farm from small calves to older cows, about 1200 animals in total. It’s not a very pleasant thing to do but you just have to build a bridge, and get over it.

So far it’s partially going to plan other than the fact that we now need some beef animals to utilise all our food. We plan to give the farm a rest from dairy cows for the winter. For our plan (it’s now plan F) to work out we needed several things to go in our favour.

No.1: We took a chance and planted cabbages in the hope that nobody else had water and so they couldn’t plant. This would mean high prices in the autumn and winter. We just managed to get our crop through the intense heat in February and we now have an amazing looking 6 ha of cabbages, and 2 ha of spinach. I have already sold 7 ha of my cabbages ha so far at a very very good price. There is a lot of downward pressure on prices at the moment as it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry with water had the same idea as us, but I have a far better location in terms of proximity to the Transkei market. Thank goodness we have at least sold half of our cabbages at a price of R9 for a loose cabbage and R50 for a pocket.

No.2: We needed just enough rain to fill the dam so we could plant the farm to winter green feed (turnips and oats). These would be used for producing milk, and posibly speculative fattening of beef. I would guess we will be one of the only farms in the country with a surplus of feed this winter. This has to present us with opportunities, but we now have to find the right person to do a deal with.

3. We now need to clear the farm completely of infected animals, and turn our huge surplus of feed into beef.

4. We then need to lease in a lot of dairy cows, and hopefully the price of milk increases. We will have hopefully avoided producing milk at a loss over the last 6 months and be producing again when it becomes profitable to do so with water in our dam and a better milk price.

There’s a lot that’s still got to unfold over the next 6 months but my adventure into farming crops has been a lot of fun. Actually I think that despite the last year being an absolute shocker, I have enjoyed the last 5 months or so of farming more than I have enjoyed farming before. It’s been great fun growing and selling cabbages. It’s opened my mind to other possibilities and other ways to make good money in farming. My father has always said that I mustn’t discount cash crop farming. Cabbages and potatoes are what got him on his feet when he first started farming, and here we are again. Cabbages coming to our rescue and hopefully potatoes, some wheat, and some more cabbages will contribute futher to getting us back on our feet again. Mother nature has laid down the gauntlet to us farmers this year. We all knew a big drought was over due. Well here it is, worse than we expected so embrace the challenge. Progress does not go in a straight line, it’s a case of several steps forward, and then one back. Manny farmers, us included will be poorer after this year than we were a season or two ago, but so what if we loose money for a season or two. I couldn’t think of a more fun way to loose money than in farming. As they say, “Life is a journey, enjoy the ride”.

Here follow a few pics of my beautiful crop of cabbages. They have been undoubtedly the most time consuming thing I have ever done, but at the same time very rewarding. We had a terrible hail storm on the first 3 ha of cabbages just after planting and I photographed their “miraculous” recovery.

The following photos were taken at regular intervals after the terrible storm we had on the 3rd of February.

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The following pics are of the “miraculous” recovery that my spinach made.

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There's nothing more satisfying as a farmer to grow a perfect crop. They not perfect but I think that the last ones i planted are pretty dam close.
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Nolangeni mountain
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A cabbage sunset
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15 Comments

  1. Great story Rex and so glad the Feys are overcoming adversity. Your Dad told me a lot over the phone but it’s good to read it again!

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this account of the trials and tribulations of farming, the risks and calculations a farmer must make, and the joy of a perfect yield. You’re sharing valuable insight into a world that so few South Africans understand, even though it is so fundamental to our economy and (though some of us don’t even realize it) our identity.

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  3. Such an awesome read and I just love the life lessons and positive approach you guys have taken to a challenging year very inspiring!!! And because I know u are controversial I’ll add my 2 cents worth you may think that the ‘miraculous’ recovery of that spinach was luck alone but the rest of us who have prayed daily for your success know better, thanks Big Guy, trust in His timings 😁

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  4. Those crops are a beautiful sight Rex. You have every right to be proud of them. What fertilizer did you give them and was it all at planting?

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    1. Hi Martin. I actually kept it very simple. I’ve used lots of Boron, Molly, zn and sulfur last season when we could afford it, so I trusted my instincts that a lot of those trace elements were sufficient. actually only used 300kgs MAP and 200 KCL at planting. Then about 300kg Urea. As a top dressing.

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  5. And another thing was that everyone said I must band place all my map and kcl at planting. That’s an insane amount of fertilizer to band place so I just disced it in and made the plants go look for the nutrients. My theory was that I would have a “lazy” shallow rooted crop if I band placed so much fertilizer

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  6. Really interesting to read about the trails, the thinking, and the positive responses to the challenges of farming Rex. Thoroughly enjoyed the insight and the read. Even in winter I pray that you get the rain to fill your dam as needed ;)!

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  7. Actually what I can’t believe about those cabbages is I am great uncle to the white grub in the middle of the field. I’m proud of that. He’s a real looker.

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  8. Rex, I don’t know if I’m interpreting this wrong but I feel that instead of belittling angus Buchan you should rather be grateful to God that you can plant a seedling and it grows so that you able to make a living and bring your farming back to its feet!

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  9. Good read, Rex. Farming cabbage I know exactly what you’re explaining! I don’t think God is pissed off with our farmers though-droughts are cyclical and come about every few years. What characters would we develop if we never encountered adversity? Imagine if God intervened every time something went wrong in the world?! Imagine if nothing ever went wrong…..wouldn’t be realistic now would it?No disease, no wars, no crime, no cancer, no droughts……lastly my five cents worth….stay away from urea and KCl. Urea is generally unstable, volatilises easily and a large amount of the nitrogen is lost to the plant. It also acidifies the soil and is generally only available to the plant for a short space of time. LAN is more stable, good for the soil and available for longer. Apply no later than two weeks after planting. Some guys mix a handful of LAN in 10l and water cabbage before planting which gives you an immediate N kick at planting. I don’t think I need to explain to you what Cl- does in the soil! Chlorine is killing that soil life you’re trying so hard to nurture. KCl is what stuffed up the soils here for the decade before I arrived. Its a cheap and nasty form of K. Rather use Potassium Sulphate. More expensive but Sulphur is a ‘forgotten’ element. Makes a huge difference of quality to your cabbage-sulphur. And lastly a very painful lesson on my behalf. I am never EVER using pre emergent herbicides every again. The money you lose in hoeing you’ll make up in the quality of the cabbage and the fact that you’re not buggering up your soil. Read “The Biological Farmer” by Gary Zimmer. Anyhow my five cents worth πŸ™‚

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    1. Dear Peter, and Rex
      Let me offer a correction to one or two of your claims about urea and KCl.

      Firstly, urea is only about half as acidifying per unit of N added as the LAN which you prefer, and if you are irrigating then volatilisation losses can be avoided by synchronising with water application which washes it in. So price would be the main consideration.

      Secondly, the Cl in KCl does not have any of the adverse effect which elemental chlorine will have, since it is chloride which in moderate quantities is harmless. However, it’s quite possible that the S in potassium sulfate will produce a good response in cabbages, which love sulfur. In the old days there was a gypsum impurity in single superphosphate and that would take care of the sulfur needs of even cabbages, but modern P fertilizers are low in S so it is quite possible that you would get a better response to K2SO4 compared with KCl and the extra cost would be worth it. I strongly suggest you try this suggestion of Peter’s, Rex, once you have assessed what the sulfur content is of your other fertilizers. But not because the Cl is harmful, rather because the S is an important macro-nutrient, for cabbages especially.
      Best wishes
      Martin

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    2. Dear Peter, a postscript: I erred concerning the relative acidifying effects of urea and LAN. They are much the same. I was thinking of the comparison with ammonium sulfate, which is twice as acidifying. My apologies.
      Kind regards
      Martin

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