Hansie van der Merwe is an exceptional horticulture farmer who has demonstrated at a commercial level that a farmer does not necessarily need huge tracts of land to farm cost-effectively.
More than a decade ago, he left his job as a qualified Fitter and Turner at Nampower to start irrigation crop production when he bought a 100-hectare farm just outside Tsumeb. It was, therefore, no surprise that the Namibia Agronomic Board (NAB) crowned him as the 2019 Master Agronomist, a title reserved annually for outstanding horticulture producers and traders who display scientific innovation, risk diversification and ingenuity to produce vegetables and fruits for the local market.
Van der Merwe has proved that it is possible to farm successfully on a 100-hectare farm, rearing a limited number of livestock, while at the same time producing more value than a farmer with thousands of hectares of land. “I keep 387 sheep and 16 cows by choice. I don’t farm with goats because this land does not have bushes and shrubs to forage,” he told a delegation of Agribank during a recent farm visit. Since he is an Agribank client, Senior Manager of Sales, Sonja Molebugi, Otjiwarongo’s Branch Manager Wylie Upi and Sales Consultant Frans Nanuseb, visited his farm to learn first-hand about his operations, as part of the bank’s approach to constantly improve its loan facilities in line with actual production phases and evaluate the effectiveness of its finance.
The pragmatic Van der Merwe has optimized his diverse farming operations to precise evaluation and monitoring from seedlings, planting, harvesting, to storage and marketing his produce. He adopted an integrated farm management system that relies on his experience combined with his inventions of customized tools and implements necessitated by knowledge of his type of soil and how various crops fare in their specific seasons.
Enhancing soil fertility naturally and minimizing input costs while increasing yield are some of Van der Merwe’s trait, constantly learning from his mistakes and regularly researching new techniques. He engages different methods for different crops, comprising of organic horticulture, applying minimal or harmless pesticide, using water sparingly and minimising weed growth. By using sustainable drip irrigation and crop rotation techniques to plant a variety of leafy greens, marrow, legumes, bulbs and root vegetables accordingly, Van der Merwe reduces a build-up of crop-specific pests and plant disease complications.
He employs more than 20 full-time workers and is ever-expanding operations hoping to create more jobs in future. “To harvest better yields successfully, you need to provide your plants with quality water and nutrients. To do that I maintain a quality staff component and have reliable family support,” he said.
The current severe drought has not dampened Van der Merwe’s ingenuity as he relentlessly apply smart farming techniques by keeping his land productive. Sporadic low rainfall and prolonged dry seasons exacerbated by climate change have vitalized the realization that sustainable irrigation is the only option for farmers to effectively produce food since rain-fed production is no longer reliable.
“In the current drought, a bale of grass costs N$120 and one cabbage costs N$20. The cabbage has more proteins for livestock than grass,” said Van der Merwe. When the market is flooded with a particular crop or if pests have spoiled some of the crops, he advises that a farmer should make an informed decision to turn losses into value. “If I cannot sell, for example, my cabbages or they are not marketable I turn them into animal feed, which I calculate against the value of buying the same from retailers. Whenever I have excess supply, I trade and barter with neighbouring farmers as well and always consult them to ensure we do not duplicate crop productions.”
The main costly expense for commercial farmers is energy, and many have turned to sustainable solar power. Van der Merwe is weighing his options on whether to approach Agribank to finance his solar power system enough to power all his operations on the farm. The farm also serves as a referral for best farming practices to numerous high school and tertiary students studying agriculture, as well as lecturers and researchers into horticulture and vermin.