NCT’s Top Tree Farmers of the Year

NCT’s Top Tree Farmers for 2022: Zodwa Bhengu (left) in the Small-Scale Grower category, and Gudrun and Rudolf Johannes in the Commercial Grower category.

NCT Forestry’s Tree Farmers of the Year for 2022 are Gudrun and Rudolf Johannes of Vryheid (Commercial Grower category), and Zodwa Bhengu of Matimatolo (Small-Scale Grower category).

The candidates for these prestigious awards are nominated by NCT staff, and are assessed against sustainable plantation management principles. This year’s winners were announced at the NCT AGM in July, and received brand new chainsaws sponsored by STIHL and PMB Power Products as rewards for their forestry excellence. 

Zodwa Bhengu grows a small block of wattle close to her homestead in the Matimatolo tribal area near Greytown in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. She has been associated with NCT for over 20 years since she and her late husband Isaac started a forestry contracting business transporting timber and bark for other small-scale growers like themselves.

Wattle has proved to be an ideal crop for people living around Matimatolo, including the Bhengus, as growing conditions are good and the markets for both timber and fresh bark are located close by. Timber is marketed through NCT while the wattle bark is sold to NTE which operates a bark factory at Hermannsburg.

Proud wattle grower Zodwa Bhengu (centre) in front of her woodlot in Matimatolo, with Cliff Walton of NCT (left) and Eza Mapipa of NTE, during a Project Wattle Regen field day.

In 2018 NCT and NTE joined forces to launch Project Wattle Regen, a joint venture initiative focused on the growing of wattle which is a popular tree crop in the Greytown/KransKop area. The primary aim of the initiative is to promote sustainable forestry in co-operation with small-scale wattle growers, to increase managed hectares of wattle plantations and thereby facilitate the development of the small growers to optimize their business potential and management.

Zodwa Bhengu was one of the first local growers to join Project Wattle Regen, and she has taken full advantage of the opportunities to improve and grow her timber related businesses. She has also played an active role in sharing ideas and expertise with other programme participants at workshops and field days.

Zodwa’s 0.6 ha wattle block has been fully fenced to keep out browsing animals, and she has diverted surface run-off water into her block to improve soil moisture. Currently four years old, her plantation is immaculately maintained with no competing weeds in sight. It is kept clean both inside the compartment and around the perimeter to reduce the fire risks.

A concrete block making operation at her homestead and a taxi business is further proof of Zodwa’s never-say-die entrepreneurial spirit.

Concrete block operation at Mrs Bhengu’s homestead in Matimatolo attests to her entrepreneurial spirit. Her well maintained wattle woodlot can be seen in the background.

Commercial forestry operation
Gudrun and Rudolf Johannes’ agriculture and forestry business started in 1993, managing a family-owned 750ha smallholding in the Dumbe area of KwaZulu-Natal. Soon thereafter they started their own harvesting contracting business, and a few years later acquired their own 630ha farm, also in the Dumbe district.

Today they manage over 2 000ha of farming land, almost half of which is used for forestry, including gum, wattle and pine.

All forestry operations are performed by their own staff except for the harvesting business which was handed over to a long serving employee.

The farms employ a total of 70 local people, with 30 permanently employed for own operations and 40 allocated to outsourced operations.

The harvested timber is marketed through NCT and Paulpietersburg Timbers. Wattle bark is sold to NTE which has a bark factory close by.

Silviculture on the farms is of a high standard with careful attention to matching the right species to the site and the market requirements.

Harvesting operations are manual, using labour to fell, de-bark and cross-cut the timber.

Gum harvesting on the Johannes’ timber farm.

The Johannes’ utilise everything including the plantation residue and even the tree stumps to manufacture charcoal in their own kilns, which is marketed through Ignite charcoal. The stumps are harvested by a contractor who uses a locally manufactured stump clipper which cuts off the stumps cleanly at ground level.

Only minimal harvesting residue is left behind in brushlines after all the usable material has been collected. These brushlines are reduced further using cool burns after rainfall events, leaving a light residue layer behind to protect the soil.

The open areas on the farms are all under maintenance phase, wetland and riparian areas have been delineated, wattle jungle and weed patches have been cleaned and rehabilitated and natural corridors between open areas have been established to promote and support biodiversity.

A healthy open corridor on the Johannes’ timber estate promotes biodiversity.

The Johannes’ contribute to local communities and have created temporary employment for local people to maintain municipal district roads and rail servitudes.

According to the NCT team that adjudicates the Top Tree Farmer awards: ‘Rudolf and Gudrun Johannes have built up a successful forestry business through hard work and an acumen for identifying opportunities. Diversification has been an important strategy in achieving this success. They have done this with a commendable social and environmental conscience.’