NCT Forestry has chosen its Top Tree Farmers for 2020. This is an annual award that recognises members for sound and sustainable management practices in tree farming. Ben Seele and Bhekuyise Shange were the winners in the two categories assessed: the first to a member who manages a large commercial farm, and the second to a small-scale grower who has improved and expanded his or her operation significantly over the past 10 years.
NCT’s Top Tree Farmer of 2020
NCT’s Top Farmer of the Year for 2020 in the Commercial category is fourth-generation farmer, Ben Seele, who has grown the family timber farming enterprise to an impressive 2 400ha of plantations with a total land area of 4 300 ha.
Ben’s great-grandparents started farming in the late 1800s when they acquired a farm in the New Hanover district in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. Subsequent generations continued the family farming tradition. Ben’s father, Carl Seele, purchased a dairy and beef farm in the hills above Baynesfield in 1979 and converted it into a timber farm. This is where Ben grew up and still lives today.
After finishing high school Ben did a B.Comm at Stellenbosch University, followed by a wood science postgraduate diploma. He then returned home to the Baynesfield farm and set up a sawmill, using profits to purchase more land in the Richmond and Dargle areas.
Today the farming operations, known as Trewirgie Timber (Pty) Ltd, is run by a small management team headed up by Ben, and employs a workforce of 230 people in harvesting, silviculture, sawmilling and transport.
Ben’s HR philosophy hinges around identifying people with potential and training them up to acquire skills and take on more responsibility. This approach has paid off as most of the skilled workers on the farm started off as general labourers, and staff turnover is low.
One of the pillars of the Seele family success has been diversification. This includes planting a large variety of species according to site requirements and managing them for various markets. Pine is grown mainly for sawtimber that is processed at the Orange Farm Sawmill at Baynesfield while wattle is managed for pulp wood and bark production. Numerous species of Eucalyptus are planted for diverse markets: E. grandis and a selection of clonal hybrids for pole and sawtimber production, E. smithii for premium pulp markets and leaf production.
E. Smithii leaf is harvested and sold to a eucalyptus oil producer based near Richmond. Leaf harvesting starts when the trees are around 18 months old with a one-metre prune and as the trees grow taller they prune up to five metres. They also harvest leaf when the E.smithii compartments are clear felled at maturity.
This focus on diversification and market spread has stood them in good stead in the current COVID-19 crisis as they have been able to adapt to changing markets and react rapidly to any market opportunities that arise.
A good example of this is the compartments managed for pole production. The harvesting team are selecting out large trees for transmission poles; the butt-end is cut at 2.5 metres for a sawlog to be processed in their mill for pallets; the middle section is sold as a transmission pole and the top section is cut and stacked for pulp. Trees not suitable for poles are left standing, and will be sold for pulp when market conditions improve.
Special care is taken to minimise the impacts of their operations on the environment. This includes layout and maintenance of roads; well-planned and executed harvesting operations and responsible waste and chemical management.
The conservation management on the farm is also noteworthy. This starts with ensuring that their timber farming activities do not pollute or degrade the environment and is carried through to setting aside significant areas as representative eco-systems. Although many of the unplanted areas are used for grazing, careful veld management ensures that these areas also have a high conservation value.
Rehabilitation of the last remaining weed infested valleys are being carried out on the farms.
Ben takes great care to protect the soils on his farms to ensure long-term productivity and sustainability, and keeps burning of brush within compartments to a minimum. Around 70% of compartments are not burnt. When brush burning has to be done they apply ‘cool’ burns that do not damage the soil.
He believes that this approach leads to improved MAIs as the soil stays healthy and productive. He has seen how accidental ‘hot’ burns damage the soil to such an extent that even weeds battle to grow. He says he is investigating various options of brush reduction in compartments, including the use of a chipper to reduce slash and create a mulch layer over the soil after harvesting.
“These farms are an exceptional example of how the impact of plantation forestry can be managed to ensure sustainability, and at the same time not compromise on productivity,” noted Craig Norris, technical forester for NCT.
Ben’s team maintains an effective network of firebreaks and plant wattle in strategic belts to limit the spread of fire. They have also been implementing cool burns under the canopy of gum compartments at the Richmond farm to reduce fuel loads and improve access.
Harvesting and silviculture work on the farms is done in-house, using traditional motor-manual systems of felling and cross-cutting with chainsaws, and stripping bark off the gum and wattle by hand. Brush is stacked neatly to facilitate easy access and re-establishment of the compartment.
He only uses contractors to help with harvesting from time to time when he needs to deliver a lot of timber to market in a short space of time.
Ben is a family man with three small children, and is hopeful that one day there will be a 5th generation of Seele’s involved in farming to continue the family tradition.
NCT Small-Scale Tree Farmer of the Year
NCT’s Top Small-Scale Tree Farmer of the Year operating on communal land is Ben Bekhuyise Shange from Kwanganase rural area in Manguzi, northern Zululand.
Ben received the award at NCT’s virtual AGM, for expanding his tree farming operations significantly over the past ten years. He received a chainsaw sponsored by Stihl Pietermaritzburg as his prize.
Ben is a self-made tree farmer and entrepreneur who operates 70ha of gum plantations. He also runs a herd of 100 cattle, a tuck shop, a mobile fridge business and 15 rental cottages. He has 15 permanent employees and a further 25 casuals.
According to Ben it all began more than 20 years ago when he became interested in tree farming. At first he could not find seed to plant, so he started collecting seed from neighbours and old gum trees growing in the area, grew the seedlings and planted them out in his own plot. He was later introduced to commercial nurseries and thereafter started planting improved material.
Prior to farming trees, Ben was a subsistence farmer growing fruit and vegetables and selling the surplus at the local market in Manguzi. The profits from the vegetable and timber sales were used to establishing his other business ventures.
Not wanting to be successful alone, he started recruiting other subsistence farmers into commercial timber planting. His influence in the area of KwaZibi led to the formation of a 42-member farmers association under his chairmanship.
Finding a market for his timber was a challenge until an experienced NCT member from the neighbouring town introduced him to NCT Richards Bay office. It was from that point that he realised the true value of his investment.
His success has empowered him to get more involved in the community. He provides support to local schools, churches and the traditional council, and has created permanent employment for 15 local people in an area with very high unemployment rates.
However the journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Top of the list of challenges are the wild fires which come from various sources to threaten his plantations, including burning of veld, land clearing and wild honey hunters. He says there is a lack of awareness among local rural communities about the dangers of fire. However he maintains that “creating a relationship between community and trees serves as a good fire prevention mechanism”.
Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in timber sales orders being cut down across the board resulting in loss of income for growers and unemployment for many farm employees in his community.
However there is hope on the horizon as the pandemic rate of spread is going down and business is picking up again.
In his parting message, Ben encouraged his fellow timber farmers to form growers associations to share knowledge around farming, markets and business.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, Nov 2020
Related articles: NCT’s Commercial Tree Farmer of the Year 2019