Growing up in an apartment on Durban’s Berea, KZN’s Toyota Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year for 2022 Tammy Williams says farming was the very last thing on her mind as a potential career.
The mother of two, whose husband Brett served with distinction in Afghanistan, now oversees more than 250ha of young macadamia orchards and established banana plantations at Canelands Estates on the outskirts of Verulam on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast.
Brett manages the estate’s 400ha under sugarcane.
And like so many farmers in KwaZulu-Natal, Williams and her husband are battling the perfect storm raging over the province’s agricultural sector since before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think I only had three hours’ sleep last night,” she says.
The demise of the 150-year-old sugar group Tongaat Hulett has put the overall future of the sugar sector – a key contributor to the provincial economy – in serious question. The business rescue practitioners appointed to oversee the firm’s financial affairs delayed the settlement of outstanding payments to growers for the harvest delivered in September, and despite the company’s mills coming back into production early in November, crushing targets will not be met this year, leaving thousands of tons of sugarcane held over in the fields. This means less revenue for growers and less money to settle wages and input and operational debt.
Further, the exponential increase in South Africa’s macadamia crop from a forecast of more than 55 000 tons to an actual of more than 70 000 tons for this season, in a flatlined global market yet to recover from the pandemic, aside from major logistics challenges at the country’s ports, have put macadamia farmers under massive cashflow pressure.
In October, South Africa’s logistics utility Transnet declared force majeure at its port operations after an “illegal strike” by workers.
The concomitant disruptions in the flow of goods are affecting South Africa’s agricultural sector and the export of produce like macadamia nuts.
According to industry insiders the port is not taking delivery of any new containers until the end of November.
These challenges come on the back of debilitating floods early in 2022 and political unrest in 2021, which saw thousands of hectares of sugarcane fields destroyed by arsonists.
“Being selected as the Toyota Kwanalu Young Farmer for 2022 is just the biggest privilege, a huge motivation factor. This award is like having someone telling me that not only is it going to be okay, but we are doing something that is meaningful, contributing to the economy of the country and to the lives of the people we employ. Our staff are everything to us. This year we are determined to hold a Christmas braai for them to say thank you. We have farmed hard this year; planted hundreds of mac and banana trees. They have been amazing,” Williams says.
“There is so much that gets me up in the morning: making sure my boys, Evan (10) and Bryn (7), can continue to have this unfettered life they are living – where they are surrounded by our diverse community and this remarkable outdoor space which we are privileged to enjoy. We are so enriched as a family because of where we live.”
Williams was born and raised in Durban and completed her education at Durban Girls High School in 2000 before setting off to explore the world.
After living in and travelling through 18 countries she returned to South Africa and coached swimming in Gauteng for eight years. “I came back to Durban in 2009 when I met Brett,” she says.
Describing her husband as her friend and work partner, Williams says she knew instantly they were made for each other. “Brett served in Afghanistan with the Royal Marines and was awarded the King’s Medal for Courage. He is my best friend. He is so level-headed and grounded. We complement each other perfectly at home and in our respective working areas.”
Williams then took up a position as personal assistant at Windemere Farms – one of the properties making up the extensive Canelands Estates – in 2010. “Brett was already working here. The job suited me perfectly, but I knew nothing about farming. I did start to get involved in the ordering of herbicides and fertiliser, however, and when the existing manager resigned, I was offered a managerial position overseeing 30ha of banana plantations. I got a quick blow-by-blow ‘how to’ course and I was on my way.”
At this point she accredits banana production guru Dr John Robinson with setting a foundation for the extensive knowledge she has today. “In the first year that I took over, the operation started turning a profit. I tightened up on staff productivity, the maintenance and tasking operations. I watched how spray was applied to optimise usage and cut out wastage. I made sure no inputs were ordered unnecessarily. I got involved with the field work as much as I could and kept an eagle’s eye on the operation so I could pick up on anything that was out of place in an instant. In fact, that is one of my most important priorities: not to take my eye off the ball for a second.”
Williams and Brett were married first in a traditional ceremony followed by a western ceremony on the farm just nine months after their initial introduction. “I was 25. I think that’s reasonable time to find yourself,” she quips.
And now, with a vested interest in the Canelands Estate operations, Williams says she is more than optimistic about the future. “If you ask me where I want to be in five, ten or fifteen years’ time, I will tell you that I want to be here. We are deeply patriotic. We love our country. I want to see my sons grow up and become an integral part of this extraordinary landscape and community,” she says.
And with her outfit bought and ready for the big night when she will represent Kwanalu at the Toyota SA/Agri SA National Young Farmer of the Year Competition 2022 later this month, Williams says the sky is the limit.
“My sights are set now on fine-tuning the macadamia and banana operations. I believe the quality of the macadamia nuts we produce on our farm will be what sets us apart in future. And we are getting closer and closer to understanding what it will take by trying out new techniques and bringing together the ideal conditions to secure that superior product.”
As a passionate conservationist, she is always looking for ways to cut back on insecticides and herbicides. “This year we planted more than 30 000 Sacred Basil bushes to help the bees and social pollinators. And yes, I guess we won’t be able to eliminate the sprays entirely, but we are certainly trying to use less and less.”
As a 38-year-old who came into the agriculture sector with no farming background whatsoever, Williams cites opportunity and perseverance as her success recipe. “I never met my grandfather, but I believe he used to show prize cattle at the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg. I think this love of the land and passion for farming is just simply in my DNA.”