Working on a farm today? You could very well be the farmer of tomorrow

The story of David Matobako from the Free State is a heart-warming example of what is possible when you seize an opportunity for growth and collaborate with others to make the most of this opportunity.

At the start of this story, David was a foreman on a vegetable farm. When the owner decided to sell the farm, David successfully applied for use of the land through the national Agricultural Land Reform Programme, established KM Enterprise together with Thato Moeng, and started farming with cattle, sheep and lucerne.

In the next chapter of the story, COVID-19 hit our world, and David and his neighbour, farmer Francois Crouse, decided to explore additional prospects in the agricultural sector for the sake of their community as a whole. In the process, their paths crossed with that of Fresh To Go (FTG), a leading supplier of fresh and processed vegetables to Woolworths, South Africa. This led to them learning of a need for asparagus.

Now, in the middle of his (or their) story, David and Francois form part of the Maluti Asparagus Company (MAC), which was formed to address this need. The other stakeholders who form part of the collective are Partners in Agri Land Solutions (PALS) and VKB Agriculture. PALS is a private land reform and development initiative, and VKB provides turnkey agricultural solutions to farmers. You can read all about it here. 

So, if you’re as captivated by this story as we are, you may be wondering whether there is actually more room for asparagus farmers in our country, and whether it may be worthwhile exploring. The answer to that is a resounding “Yes!” The reason being that while the market for asparagus in the rest of the world is expected to keep on growing, the production of asparagus in South Africa has been shrinking!

To put it in perspective; the global asparagus market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.8% from 2020 to 2025, while the local production of asparagus has gone down. In 2019, for example, South Africa shipped around 463 623 tonnes of asparagus, which was almost 11% less than what we had exported the previous year. The fact that the asparagus farming industry desperately needs new entrants is echoed by the few who are already in the industry.

In an article published in Food for Msanzi, Grahame Osler from Denmar Estates says, “Unless there are new farmers who are going to come in, my worry is that a lot of the information and knowledge that we do have about the South African growing climate might actually fall away.” So, if we’ve convinced you of the viability of asparagus farming, your next question may very well be, “Where do I start, and what do I need to become an asparagus farmer?”

Well, according to those in the know, there are three must-haves. The first is access to sufficient land. A new asparagus crop cannot be planted in the same soil as an old asparagus crop, so you will need to constantly find new soil to plant new crops in. The second is access to irrigation. Asparagus cannot be overwatered, but it does need well-drained soil to flourish. Finally, you’ll need the right climate. Even though it’s a hardy crop that can survive a wide range of climates, studies show that asparagus fares better in fair weather, as you yield the best crops when you prepare for harvesting during temperatures that range between 15°C and 26°C.

According to David Matabako, although you don’t need to know anything about asparagus farming to get started, you do need a trusted mentor who wants to see you grow and succeed. “Without a mentor, farming will be very difficult,” he says. “I have been walking this road with Francois Crouse for 15 years, and without him, I would not have come nearly this far. 

Indeed, the story of David Matabako and MAC is one that captures the essence of that powerful old African proverb beautifully: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. If you’re ready to start writing your own farming story, reach out to the likes of VKB Agriculture to help you find those golden agricultural opportunities. Or find your own mentor or two by following @NicheFarmers on Facebook and connecting with other niche farmers.