While a number of municipal plantations around KZN appear to be falling into disrepair under inexperienced and inefficient management, the Vryheid municipal plantation is bucking the trend and flourishing in the hands of a no-nonsense ‘caretaker’ lessee who was raised on the farm and has a special interest in its future.
In 2020 Hendrick Mbatha secured a three-year lease to operate the 680 ha estate, located just outside Vryheid, which is owned by the Abaqulusi Municipality. It includes a scenic dam which provides the town with fresh water, as well as several hundred hectares of pine, wattle and gum.
Hendrick grew up on the farm and has been working in various capacities in the forestry industry for the past 25 years. Both his father and grandfather were working in the industry so forestry is in his blood. He says his family was moved off the farm in 1990.
In 2014 he lodged a land claim for the farm on behalf of the Grootgewacht Community, which to this day has not been resolved.
In 2020, when the previous 30-year lease for the farm came to an end, Hendrick put in a strong bid to take over management of the farm. He secured a three-year ‘caretaker’ lease and has been running the farm ever since.
Now forestry is a long-term business with tree rotations ranging from eight to 30 years, so there is not much you can expect a lessee to achieve in such a short space of time. But Hendrick has gone all out to maintain and improve the estate. He has renovated the dilapidated buildings on the farm and fixed up the recreational area around the dam that is used and enjoyed by locals. He has fenced the entire farm to keep out goats and cattle that were damaging growing trees, and has re-planted wherever he has harvested.
He has been converting some of the pine areas to shorter rotation gum and black wattle, which he believes makes business sense for the future sustainability of the farm. Gum species planted are a mix of E. grandis, E. dunnii and E. smithii.
With his three-year lease coming to an end all too soon, he is already busy negotiating with the Abaqulusi officials for an extension, pending the finalisation of the land claim.
“I want to keep the farm clean because it’s coming to us, so I work hard for the future,” says Hendrik.
He says that there was a lot of negativity in the district when he first secured a lease to run the farm, with many people predicting that it would rapidly fall into disrepair, as has happened in other municipal plantations around the province.
But Hendrick says that he has worked hard to build relationships with neighbours and local stakeholders, and many of the people who were doubting him before are now shaking his hand.
He supplies pine sawlogs to the previous lessee, RF Gevers, who owns a large sawmill nearby, and also allows them to cut grass around the farm for winter feed as it helps to reduce the fuel load, thus reducing the fire risk. He expressed his appreciation for the support he has received from the directors of RF Gevers who have provided him with assistance and advice over the past two years.
The picnic area around the dam is spic and span, the grass is mowed regularly and he has built braai stands and fixed up the toilet facilities – much to the delight of the local day visitors. He has also renovated an old building next to the dam and uses it as his office, equipment store and workshop. He has cut down some huge old gum trees growing wild around the dam, and says the dam’s water levels have risen as a result.
Standing pine is sold to RF Gevers; gum and wattle timber is sold to TWK and Sappi, and he has been supplying fresh wattle bark to NTE.
Eza Mapipa, Forestry Development Officer at NTE, is extremely impressed with the productivity on the farm which has supplied NTE’s Stillwater depot in Vryheid with some 700 tons of fresh bark during this past season.
“I am glad that NTE could open the market opportunity for Mr Mbatha so he could get paid the right price for his good quality bark,” commented Eza. “Mr Mbatha is doing a great job, and it is nice to see a municipal plantation that is running so well.”
Hendrick employs 25 people on the farm, and hires additional help when needed. The farm is not certified, but Hendrick says he will address that when the future of the farm is more certain. The timber growing on the farm is insured through Safire, and he joined the local FPA last year.
Hendrick and farm supervisor Mandla Ndlovu were happy to show SA Forestry around the farm and were clearly proud of their handywork. Farm roads are well maintained and have been recently graded, with good drainage ditches and runoffs. We saw a healthy wattle compartment where every fifth row had been felled and the slash stacked neatly in rows. A team of workers was busy hoeing around some recently planted Eucalyptus, and a local farmer was cutting and baling grass for cattle feed. Open and riparian areas are well maintained with little alien vegetation evident. The recreational area around the dam is immaculate.
Overall, we saw a shipshape tree farm run effectively by a highly motivated farm manager, who means business!