NCT’s small scale tree farmer of the year

Vikesh from Pmb Power Products presents Sydney with a brand new STIHL chainsaw.

Sydney Qedumona Hlanguza from the Umvoti tribal area has been nominated by the NCT Forestry team as their Small Scale Tree Farmer of the Year for 2023.

This is a prestigious award presented annually to tree farmers who display excellence in the management of their plantations grown on tribal land.

After spending 20 years working in the formal sector, first as a teacher and then with Old Mutual’s sales division, Sydney returned to his traditional home in Ntembisweni in the Umvoto tribal area where he bought a plot situated adjacent to his family’s ancestral land.

Evidence of Sydney’s excellent forestry operations with effective weeding around newly planted tree seedlings.

Initially he managed a small rural trading store but was eventually persuaded to try his hand at forestry, initially planting wattle on his land from seed acquired from NTE.

By the time those first trees reached maturity, Sydney had made contact with NCT’s Greytown District Manager, Cliff Walton, who helped him find a market for the timber.

This was the start of a long-standing relationship between Sydney and NCT, with Sydney becoming a member of the co-op in 2010.

Sydney continued to plant wattle on his land, and now also manages the wattle plantations on the adjoining land owned by his two brothers. He has a total of three hectares of wattle under his management.

Sydney’s three hectares planted with wattle.

Sydney has been instrumental in assisting the foresters from NCT and NTE to roll out Project Wattle Regen in the Umvoti tribal areas, which aims to support the small-scale growers to improve their productivity, and expand the areas planted to wattle.

Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) is an ideal tree crop well suited to local conditions, and with ready markets nearby.

Most of the wattle timber grown in this area is marketed through NCT which has chipping and export facilities at the nearby port of Richards Bay. The wattle bark is marketed through NTE which has a factory near Greytown that turns freshly harvested wattle bark into tannin and adhesives, destined mainly for the export market. Wattle timber not marketed through NCT is also widely used by locals in many applications such as fencing posts and building material.

Young wattle seedlings are planted in a fenced enclosure to protect them from being trampled by cattle.

Sydney shared some of the many challenges he faces daily. Goats, cattle, and duiker breaking through his fences and seedlings being removed shortly after planting. Fire also is a constant threat and part of his management plan is making sure that he has good firebreaks during the winter months. He deals with challenges faced proactively and responds tactfully. He allows neighbours to collect firewood on his property in a controlled manner, this way he gains allies rather than enemies.

In addition to his forestry business, Sydney also runs a small side-business selling gas refills, lectures in Theology at a local Bible college, and is a speed-walking champion for good measure.

Sydney is a proud father of seven children. His older children are all in successful careers while he is still responsible for his last two who are both training to be teachers. Sydney’s wife works for the University of KwaZulu-Natal as an admin clerk.

He is a humble person who is always open to learning and improving. He considers himself a “student of life” and is always ready to take advice from people who know more about something than himself.

Sydney’s fire breaks – fire is a constant threat, especially in the dry winter months.

Conserving soil health for future generations

Terry Wolhuter receiving his prize – a brand new chainsaw – from Hayden Hutton of Stihl.


Terry and Belinda Wolhuter of 92 Farming (Pty) Ltd are NCT’s Commercial Tree Farmers of the Year for 2023.

Terry is the sixth generation of the Wolhuter family farming on Eiland Spruit Farm in New Hanover in the KZN midlands. The farm was established in 1851 by Mathys Wolhuter, and was historically utilised for raising cattle while crops were cultivated in the flatter areas.

It was Terry’s father, Peter Wolhuter, who started growing wattle on the steeper areas of the farm with sugar planted on the flatter areas.

The farm is 500ha in size and is currently planted with 250ha of sugar cane, 110ha of Acacia and 40ha of Eucalyptus. The remaining hectares are managed as open areas, valleys and waterways which are well maintained with seasonal work being done to ensure alien invasives are eradicated.

All timber compartments are being re-established along the contours to prevent soil erosion.

Terry is very aware of his responsibility as the custodian of the land and the importance of ensuring the viability of the farming operation for the next generation, so conservation of the natural resources - especially the soil - is of fundamental importance to his operational planning. Hence the move to ‘regenerative agriculture’. All timber compartments that are harvested are being re-established along the contours; cool burns are practiced to reduce the harvesting residues. This is only done when the weather conditions are conducive to a cool burn, and after the local community has removed firewood from the harvest sites.

Pesticide usage is kept to a minimum and weed control is done by means of line hoeing followed by a modified slasher that uses chains instead of blades. This creates a mulch in the inter-row that conserves moisture, reduces weed germination and protects the soil from sun, wind and heavy rain storm events.
Terry uses his Nguni cattle to graze under the canopy thus reducing the fuel load for fire protection, and promoting weed control.

The farm’s neighbours are corporate timber growers and NCT commercial timber growers.

Regenerative agriculture in the sugar cane blocks is done by planting the fields due for re-establishment with a cover crop seed mix that includes Japanese Radish, Stooling Rye, Fescue grass and Oats. The resultant crop is used for grazing by the Ngunis – the manure they leave behind is a bonus for the soil. After this operation, maize is planted that is either sold or used for feed.

Terry is discovering the benefits of leaving a two-year fallow period between sugar cane crops which he says increases the microbial activity in the soil and results in improved growth when the sugar cane is replanted. Due to the current situation with more sugar cane being carried over than usual, Terry is feeding this to the Ngunis so these blocks are receiving an addition bonus of manure before the sugar cane ratoons or is planted with the cover crop.

Green wattle (Acacia decurrens) stand sown with the specially designed seeder.

Terry’s passion for his farm doesn’t stop at his adoption of regenerative agricultural operations. Innovation is what has assisted Terry in the timber operation, with the creation of a unique wattle seeder as well as a modified ripper with a duck’s foot that has improved stand survival and uniformity.

The wattle seeder, built by Terry’s mechanic Tewis, has reduced the quantity of seed used per hectare and created a uniform dense hedge of young wattle seedlings that are thinned 12 to 18 months after sowing to 2 500 SPHA and then down to 1 800 SPHA at 24 months. Where site conditions allow, conventional Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle) seedlings are planted. This is where Terry’s ripper and duck’s foot combination comes to the fore. This piece of equipment creates a rip line, and the seedlings are planted into it after is has been marked to the correct espacement. The addition of the duck’s foot behind the ripper’s tine shatters the soil underneath the surface, while the suspended weight automatically closes up the rip line ensuring that soil moisture is not lost due to drying out. This replaces the conventional pit planting system.

Being a sugar cane grower and owning an earth moving business specialising in cane contouring and water way construction, Terry knows the importance of a well-maintained road infrastructure. All the main access roads throughout the farm are gravelled. Contour roads and water ways are all grassed to prevent erosion. Stream crossings are constructed with pipes and concrete so vehicles can cross easily and silting up of the streams is prevented.

A composting operation on the farm reduces the need to purchase synthetic fertilizers to boost growth of the sugar cane crops. Compost is made from a mixture of cane tops, Mila sourced from the local cane mill and chicken litter. The ingredients are mixed and left to break down into a healthy compost that enriches the soil and boosts growth.

The composting operation reduces the need to use synthetic fertiliser, and is central to the regenerative agriculture approach.

Social responsibilities are as important as any other operation on the farm, and apart from assisting with firewood, Terry has loaned TLBs to the community and sponsored a local soccer team.

Terry he attributes the success of the farm to everyone working together, and he says it wouldn’t be the success that it is without the assistance of his wife, Belinda, especially when it comes to all the admin work.

Responsible pesticide use is essential … all pesticides are locked safely away when not in use.

Linking small-scale wattle growers to market

Stihl technical training officer Phawu Silosini explains the benefits of the BT230 Earth Augur to the small growers at the NCT field day at Glenside.

The NCT forestry team hosted two field days for small-scale growers in the KZN midlands at their Glenside and Ahrens depots in March.

These depots play a crucial role in the timber business of the small-scale growers as they are located close to the growing areas thus requiring a relatively short haul from field to depot. The NCT team weighs the in-coming timber, schedules the payment to the grower and arranges the long haul transport from the depot to the NCT chipping facility at Richards Bay.

The purpose of these field days is to familiarise the growers with the timber specs required, to provide the latest info about different aspects of planting, tending and harvesting, and to encourage the growers to network among themselves and interact with the NCT team.

Fisokuhle Ngcobo explains the benefits of correct spacing in this wattle compartment at his homestead in Matimatolo. Fisokuhle and his wife Nomthandazo Hlombe were NCT’s Small-Scale Tree Farmers of the Year in 2021. They manage six ha of wattle and supply NCT’s Ahrens depot.

NCT forester Eric Msomi explained the most common timber defects that the depot will not accept. These include:-
• Undersized (less than 50 mm diameter) and oversized (more than 500 mm diameter) timber
• Wrong length - the depot requires 2.4 metre lengths
• Crooked and bent timber
• Timber that has been poorly de-branched or de-barked
• Burnt timber and timber that has started decomposing
• Timber that is contaminated with stones, rubble, metal or other debris
• Timber too fresh – ideally timber should be delivered to depot from around three weeks after harvesting.

One grower raised the issue of timber theft and wondered why he can’t deliver his harvested timber to the depot immediately after harvesting, as the longer it lies around in the plantation the greater is the risk of it being stolen. Eric explained that freshly cut timber is too wet to handle, and also because NCT sells its wood chips as bone dry tons and so it must be weighed at least three weeks after harvesting when the moisture content is sufficiently reduced.

It was suggested that growers could mark their timber with a green dye after harvesting so that it can be identified as belonging to an NCT member, which may discourage the timber thieves.

Timber loading at NCT’s Glenside depot, KZN midlands.

Another issue that came up for discussion at the Ahrens depot field day was the challenges that growers face of getting their timber to the depot. It seems that there is a shortage of reliable transport available for the small-scale growers in these tribal areas to haul their timber from field to depot. This has been an on-going problem as the loads are often quite small and the growers don’t have suitable transport of their own, so they are reliant upon informal, local transporters when available.

Eric also explained to the growers the importance of accurate record keeping in order to verify the origin of all timber delivered to the depot. He explained that the timber is sold as ‘Controlled Wood’ and so the ‘Chain of Custody’ – the timber’s journey from plantation to market - has to be tracked and verified as legal and proper.

The STIHL SA team were on hand to demonstrate the use of their range of equipment designed to improve the productivity of small-scale timber growers and farmers. These included the following:-
• WP230 water pump – easy to move around by hand, ideal for pumping water into an irrigation ditch or water tank, moves up to 250 litres per minute.
• BT230 Earth Auger – drills perfect holes in the ground for building or fence poles and is ideal for creating uniform pits for planting.
• SG230 Sprayer – delivers powerful spray capacity ideal for plantations or small farms.
• MS260 Chainsaw … this little baby is designed for felling, de-branching and cross-cutting small timber. It’s light, powerful and reliable.

All of this equipment is available at STIHL dealerships around the country.

A Stihl team member demonstrates the correct method of sharpening the saw chain using a proper Stihl chain sharpening kit. It’s quick and easy once you know how and should be done every time you stop working to fill the machine with petrol. That way the saw is always sharp, more fuel-efficient and easier to handle.

The Eradispray team, based in Pietermaritzburg, demonstrated the use of their Faka-Plenty hand-operated tree seedling tube planter as well as various tools for doing chemical sprays before and after planting to eliminate weeds. These sprayers are attached to special backpacks that are designed for comfort and meet Mondi’s health and safety requirements for contractors working on their plantations.

The tree farmers supplying both if these depots are primarily growing wattle timber which is in big demand among NCT customers around the world. Wattle timber is also used extensively by the local people as building poles and for fences etc. The farmers in this region are also fortunate in that they can sell fresh wattle bark to the bark factories operating close by, which provides them with additional revenue at harvest time.

Callum McKenzie of Eradispray demonstrates the Faka-Plenty manual planting tube which enables the planter to plant effectively without having to stoop down and get his or her hands in the soil – and a sore back.

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.’

NCT field day provides foresters with valuable insights

NCT Forestry held a highly successful field day at their Enon forestry farm near Richmond in the KZN midlands recently. Foresters and tree farmers came from far and wide to attend the field day and pick up a few useful tips from the experienced NCT team, happy to blow away the cobwebs and engage with colleagues in the real world after months of COVID lockdown.

There were a number of interesting indoor presentations, field stops and equipment demonstrations, finishing off with a delicious braai around the Enon dam.

Prof Keith Little of Nelson Mandela University provided info on the trials he has been conducting in an effort to find a suitable replacement for Paraquat which has been used by foresters for decades to prepare tracer belts to facilitate the safer burning of fire breaks. Paraquat worked brilliantly but has been outlawed by FSC due to the risks associated with handling the chemical. The key thing that made Paraquat so effective was that it rapidly dessicates and kills the above ground vegetation, making it easier and safer to proceed with burning the firebreak in between the tracer belts – but it does not harm the below ground roots. Thus the grass on the tracer belts grows back readily in spring and protects the soil from subsequent erosion and invasion by weeds.

Keith presented some encouraging results that he has had in trials using pelargonic acid (PA) in varying conditions and sites. It seems that it is a good substitute for Paraquat but it is a bit more costly and must be applied at the correct rate and solution to be effective. In other words it is not as ‘bullet-proof’ as Paraquat.

Roger Poole of the Timber Industry Pesticide Working Group says the industry has applied for registration of pelargonic acid for use in South Africa, and hopefully it will be registered in time for the 2023 fire season. In the meantime many foresters are using brush cutters very effectively to prepare tracer belts.

Jacob Kotze of NCT Tree Farming provided info on the best performing tree species in terms of their return and impact on the bottom line. Salient points from his presentation were as follows:-

• Wattle gives the best net profit return on all NCT farms.
• The cost of wattle rust resistant clones is worth the investment due to reduced silvicultural costs and improved MAI.
• Green wattle (Acacia decurrens) is a viable alternative to E. dunnii on certain sites.
E. grandis clones give a good net profit on good sites if a pole market is an option.
E. smithii remains a good option on the right sites.
• Plantation insurance costs are considerably less for acacia species vs eucalypts.
• TU period is generally shorter for eucalypts than it is for wattle.

The team from Andermatt Madumbi then delivered their presentation on the importance of looking after soil health for good, sustainable yields. They have developed various biological-based products to improve soil and root health which inevitably results in improved vigour and growth of the plants – whether they be trees or agricultural crops. They have had a lot of success with improving crop yields after their soil treatments, and have recently been doing trials in tree nurseries with their root health programme. According to Andrew Keller the programme resulted in improved root health and growth of the cuttings. He said this would lead to improved survival, better pest and disease tolerance and the trees would be quicker to canopy.

Andrew said that there is increasing pressure on farmers all over the world to reduce chemical use in their fields due to declining soil health and productivity over successive rotations, hence the value of using quality biologicals to boost soil health.

He said that tree farmers need more fungi and less bacteria in the soil which will build up the carbon content and lead to healthier crops. At just 3% organic matter in the soil you get “massive growth improvement”, he said. As the fungi to bacteria ratio increases, so too the growth of the plant accelerates.

Tree improvement programme

After the indoor presentations we took a drive around Enon to view some of NCT’s tree improvement trials, from rust-tolerant wattle trees, black and green wattle hybrids and a raft of Eucalyptus hybrids that are producing ever improving results with better growth, improved pest and disease tolerance, wood quality and stem form.

For over 20 years a hybrid breeding consortium has been funding research and testing clones for independent timber growers in the forestry industry. Recently, NCT together with TWK and affiliated clonal nurseries - CPS Seedlings, Ezigro Seedlings, Sunshine Seedlings, Sutherland Seedlings and Top Crop - have formed a non-profit company known as the Hybrid Clone Consortium (HCC) to continue managing this programme.

Highlights of the programme include the development of GN 2107, one of the most widely and successfully grown GxN clones in the industry today; the development of GU 400 and 412 at the height of the L. invasa infestations to help growers combat this pest; and the release of the first South African black wattle clones to the market.

There are now well over 100 hybrid trials planted across a wide range of South African forestry sites which are contributing crucial info that is steadily building an understanding of which clones to plant on which sites for desired results.

At the same time nursery practises have evolved and clones are now produced through mini-cuttings, which form a tap-root like root system which more closely resembles the root architecture of a seedling. The introduction of paper pots over the past few years has also improved the quality of the root plug and ease of handling of clonal cuttings which are the future of forestry.

We were then treated to a demo of the use of drones to spray the tree canopy from above, the use of a highly effective blower to manage and extinguish a fire by the STIHL team; and various spray and planting rigs from Midlands Spraychem.

Thanks to the NCT team for organising a highly informative field day.

Wattle growers share experiences


Foresters from NTE and NCT hosted a field day for an enthusiastic group of small-scale wattle growers at NCT’s Ahrens depot near Greytown in the KZN midlands recently.

During the workshop a number of growers who are participating in Project Wattle Regen shared the knowledge and experiences that they have gained over the past few years through their participation in the programme. These talks were followed by a field visit to two of the growers’ wattle plantations in the nearby Matimatolo tribal area.

Project Wattle Regen is a joint venture initiative between NTE and NCT that was launched in 2018 in the Greytown area. It is focused on the growing of wattle which is a popular tree crop with local people as it has many uses around their smallholder farms and two established nearby markets in the form of NCT, which purchases the timber for pulp, and NTE which purchases fresh wattle bark for processing at their Hermannsburg bark factory

The primary aim of the initiative is to promote sustainable forestry in co-operation with small-scale wattle timber growers, to increase managed hectares of wattle plantations and thereby facilitate the development of small growers to optimize their business potential and management.

According to Cliff Walton of NCT and Eza Mapipa of NTE, who are working closely together to drive the project, there has been growing interest among their members to plant wattle in a sustainable fashion and to increase the productivity of their woodlots. The Project Wattle Regen participants, who currently number 21, receive technical advice and support, free, improved wattle seedlings and herbicide and insecticide for planting, as well as market access for the timber and bark that they produce.

Participation in Project Wattle Regen is open to growers who meet the following requirements:-
• Ownership and permission to occupy and plant the land endorsed by the representative Tribal Authority in writing.
• The area has to have been previously planted to trees.
• A fence of kinds has to be erected to protect the planted seedlings from cattle, goats etc.
• The owner of the land has to be a full member of both NTE and NCT and have a supply history.
• All labour costs are carried by the landowner

Assistance provided to the participating growers includes: -
• Technical support
• Chemicals to do a pre-plant spray (weedicide and insecticide)
• Wattle seedlings

In the spring of 2018, the first plantings began in the Ntembsweni Tribal area and these efforts have since expanded to Matimatolo and beyond. Roughly 6 – 8 ha has been established yearly and there are 21 individual participants, some of whom have established more than one wattle woodlot.

Planting has ideally taken place at the optimum time from November through to January when the rain is generally good. All planting is done with one litre of water into manually prepared pits with a dimension of 25cm x 25cm and 25cm deep.

The idea of the workshop and field days was to encourage participants to work closer together and share their experiences with each other, thus paving the way for building a more sustainable base of wattle growers in these tribal areas. This in turn translates into a more stable bark and timber resource for NTE and NCT.

Transport was highlighted several times as a major problem experienced by the growers. One of the growers, Mrs Z Bhengu, said she now had her own truck and was already talking to some of the other participants about how she could assist them to get their bark and timber to market.

Mr Gwala also spoke about the poor condition of the district roads in their area and the problem with road drainage. He appealed to the participants to make sure their roads on their property were well constructed and drained properly. He mentioned that he had created a drain parallel to his property to drain off excess runoff from the district road so that it did not cut through his property, and this was working well. 

Mrs T Masikane, a wattle grower and former board member of NTE, pointed out a number of advantages that the local growers enjoy regarding the supply of wattle bark to NTE. She said that the Hermannsburg bark factory is situated just 20 kms from Matimatolo, so the close proximity of the market is an advantage. Also, she said that the NTE factory is flexible to accommodate small-scale wattle growers who come in late during the season to request bark allocation. The bark season traditionally runs from September through to the end of May.

The growers have also been taken on a factory tour so now they know more about the manufacturing process and the products that their bark is used to produce, and they understand how the quality of the bark they deliver impacts on the final product. 

A number of the participants said that the indoor workshop session was of great value as they were able to share ideas and experiences, and there was a general call to have more frequent workshops in future.

Pursuing opportunities in a struggling economy – Notes from FSA’s 20th AGM

Forestry South Africa held its 20th Annual General Meeting in the KZN midlands recently, hosting a ‘live’ event attended by around 70 members and guests (numbers were limited due to COVID regulations) and many more who attended the virtual event.

Despite the fact that forestry in South Africa has been rocked by a string of disruptive events in the past few years, including the COVID pandemic and lockdown, riots and looting in KZN, freight rail and port disruptions, then floods in KZN again, the general mood at the AGM was positive and upbeat as stakeholders focused on tackling the challenges and finding solutions.

In his opening address FSA Executive Director Michael Peter said that the FSA team is working well with their Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI) partners and making progress in addressing the major challenges confronting the forestry sector.

Likewise guest speakers Dr Azar Jammine of Econometrix and logistics consultant Ian Bird unpacked the problems we face across South Africa’s social, political and economic landscape, but pointed out the many opportunities that exist to turn it around, as well as some concrete steps being taken to do just that.

Themba Vilane, head of Mondi Forests in SA, is taking over from Busisiwe Mnguni as FSA Chairperson, while his deputy is well known KZN tree farmer Andrew Mason.

In her address, outgoing chairperson Busi Mnguni of the KZN Small Grower Group, revealed that the failed insurrection and looting spree that spread across KZN and parts of Gauteng in mid-2021 cost the Forest Sector around R656 million in physical damages and lost production. Before this unfortunate event the forestry industry was on track to record its best year since 2018 in terms of timber sales, which says a lot for the resilience of the sector.

Despite these disruptions, the industry recorded total timber sales of 13 153 million tons in 2021 – some 13% up on the volumes achieved in 2019.

Other noteworthy achievements notched up by the hard-working FSA team include:-

• Positive changes to the diesel rebate system
• Increasing FSA membership to well over 95% of timber growers in SA
• Securing access to state funding to support black participants in forestry
• Securing high court judgements in industry’s favour on Genus-exchange and the protection of water use rights.

Incoming FSA chairperson Themba Vilane revealed that the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has approved FSA’s third round application for Sector Innovation Funding, in the amount of R 35,2m over four years. This success is due in no small part to the efforts of FSA’s Research and Protection Director, Dr Ronald Heath, with the support of the Research Advisory Committee, as well as the efforts of FSA’s partners in the PPGI.

Coupled with the R24m secured from the DSI in the first round of SIF funding and R11m in the second round, this means that FSA has secured R 70m from DSI over the past seven years!

The funding will be utilised in line with FSA’s funding framework which focuses on forest protection and sustainability.

Dr Azar Jammine, Director and Chief Economist at Econometrix, spelled out the dire state of the South African economy, which has a projected growth rate for 2022 of 1.9% - one of the lowest in the world. 35%-46% unemployment, a growing chasm between the haves and the have nots and a deepening technological divide, has led to a huge reliance on social relief. Capital investment has dropped to 13% of GDP (from 19% in 2014), and the lack of infrastructure development has had a crippling effect on the economy, he said.

Notwithstanding the fact that we have a ‘challenging’ economy, Dr Jammine said a lot can still be achieved if government can make the right moves.

“Hopefully President Ramaphosa will get a second term in office and have more freedom to implement the necessary structural reforms to spark an economic recovery, which would take a few years to manifest,” he said.

Ian Bird, Logistics Executive of Smartvest Investment, outlined the poor levels of service on the country’s freight rail lines as well as the ports, which is of critical importance for the competitiveness of the forestry industry. Problems on the ‘Wood Owl’ line which hauls timber from Mpumalanga and northern KZN to Richards Bay, as well as the branch lines serving the forest sector, have resulted in rail usage declining steadily over the past few years, and road usage increasing.

This has had the effect of increasing the costs of logistics while negatively impacting the road infrastructure.

Meanwhile he said that Transnet’s rail network is hugely under-utilised and ripe for private sector investment.

Transnet Freight Rail has eventually come around to this way of thinking, he says, and has offered two-year slots to the private sector to supply locomotives and wagons on the main Jhb to Durban container line. However he believes that these slots are too short-term to be viable in their present form.

He says that FSA is putting together a Rail Committee that will pursue opportunities for private sector participation in the coal line that is used by the Wood Owl train that hauls timber from the central forestry regions to the Richards Bay mills. Transnet has been receptive to the initiative for 3rd party access, and the operational head of Transnet’s rail line will be part of that committee. The initiative has been well received by stakeholders and he is optimistic that solutions will be forthcoming.

He says the forest sector has 4.5 million tons of timber a year available for train freight, which constitutes 7% to 8% of Transnet’s general freight cargo, which shows that we are not an insignificant stakeholder. Current timber volumes being transported on rail are 1.9 million tons a year.

The immediate plan is for the private sector to provide locomotives to pull Transnet wagons on the Wood Owl. This would overcome the problem of unavailability of locomotives which has been at the heart of the recent freight train service disruptions on the coal line.

The longer term solution would be for private operators to supply locomotives, drivers and wagons, while leasing the rail line from Transnet.

Private sector participation in freight rail and port handling will happen, there’s no turning back, said Ian.
“An exciting new era in structural reforms beckons.”

Wonderful wattle in Matimatolo

NCT’s Small-Scale Tree Farmer of the Year for 2021 demonstrates how to establish and build a sustainable tree farming operation in faraway Matimatolo, near Kranskop in the KZN midlands …

By Samora Chapman

Matimatolo is a small tribal area in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, which lies on an escarpment 850 metres above sea level. It’s a remote rural area, where job opportunities are scarce and infrastructure is limited. However the rainfall is good and the land is fertile and abundant. In this area, and many others like it, small-scale forestry and farming can sustain families and communities - if it is done right.

Introducing husband and wife team Nomthandazo Hlombe and Fisokuhle Ngcobo, who together run an efficient 6ha wattle farm that supports the family, provides jobs and inspires others to make better use of their land.

Nomthandazo is the recipient of the NCT Small Grower of the Year Award for 2021, a proud achievement for her and her husband, who have worked side-by-side to improve and grow their business from humble beginnings to the sustainable enterprise that it is today.

Mr Ngcobo has been growing trees for 27 years, learning the practice from his neighbour, who was the first person in the area to establish a sustainable timber farm. In 2000 he married Nomthandazo Hlombe and introduced her to the business of growing trees. She learned fast and took over many responsibilities – land preparation, accounts, marketing and planning, allowing Mr Ngcobo to focus on planting, labour, maintenance and harvesting.

Together they grew their operation from 1ha to 6ha, which is spread out in the form of small plots within a kilometre of their homestead. The wattle stands are fenced, meticulously maintained and planted in neat rows - in stark contrast to the neighbouring wattle and bramble jungle!

“Unemployment is the biggest challenge here, but the youth do not see value in farming,” says Mrs Hlombe as she sits under a shady avo tree with her husband. She is nursing a beautiful baby girl, while chickens walk about the yard chasing anything that moves. It’s a typical scene of rural life in KwaZulu-Natal. A few wattle poles are stacked alongside the homestead, readily available for neighbours to pop in and buy on an informal basis.

“We lead by example, showing our community that you can make a good living growing trees,” she goes on. “We encourage youth to get an education first, but it’s good for them to know that if you work hard you can run a successful tree farm. The land is full of opportunity.”

Vusi Dladla, NCT’s Development Services Manager commented on Mrs Hlombe’s journey to becoming one of the top small-scale tree farmers in the area: “Her claim to fame was the use of naturally regenerated wattle seedlings to plant up new areas,” he explained. “This was a learning curve since she was planting non genetically improved material. But with limited financial resources, she managed to expand her timber area from a small field to the six hectares under timber production today. When NCT and NTE introduced a wattle replanting programme she grabbed the opportunity and made a success of it.”

Wonderful Wattle
Mr Ngcobo discusses the many wonders of the wattle tree. “Wattle is a very profitable crop – it has many benefits,” he says in his quiet way. “We sell the timber to NCT and the bark to NTE. Thinnings can be used for fencing and firewood. We also grow cabbage, potatoes, spinach, madumbis and chilli, which we sell at the local market and use to feed our family.”

Winning the NCT Small Grower of the Year came with a brand new STIHL chainsaw. “I’m so proud and happy that we won this award,” says Mr Ngcobo, beaming. “Although I have been using a chainsaw for over 20 years, this is the first time having our very own machine. We usually hire machines, they are expensive and in bad condition!”

Mr Ngcobo says that the support and guidance of Eza Mapipa (NTE’s Forestry Development Officer) and Cliff Walton (NCT’s Greytown District Manager) has helped their business immensely. “The partnership helps steer us in the right direction,” he explains. “We communicate all the time, so we can see where we are going. We have direct access to the market, which means we get paid the correct rate for our timber and bark.”

Project Regen
Mr Ngcobo and Mrs Hlombe are part of a small-grower development initiative called Project Regen, which was first established in Zululand in 2012, and launched in the Matimatolo area in 2018. NCT supplies member small-growers with seedlings and NTE supplies chemicals for land prep, as well as offering technical advice on how to improve production, manage diseases and burn firebreaks.

Seedlings are sourced from CPS and delivered directly to small growers to minimize stress on the plants. “The eMatimatolo area is particularly well suited to black wattle,” says Cliff Walton. “We choose cool days for planting, which happens in spring when there is plenty of rain in this area. We don’t plant with any gels, only water and we leave fertilizing up to our small growers, although we advise where needed. We require that all growers fence their plots to ensure protection from goats, cattle (and even rabbits) which roam the area.”

It made perfect sense for NCT and NTE to collaborate on supporting small growers in the area, to help secure a consistent and quality supply of timber and bark in the region.

“Project Regen is all about getting these small growers to be more sustainable,” explains Cliff. “What’s amazing about Mrs Hlombe and Mr Ncobo is that they always take initiative, they ask questions when they have problems and they take pride in their work. Mrs Hlombe makes sure their GST is signed annually and their requests are placed at our office. She is certainly very organised!

“They concentrate all their energy into building their own areas, whether it is wattle or other forms of agriculture and are certainly pure farmers from that point of view,” continues Cliff. “Many other small-scale farmers in the area are non-sustainable and harvest their small patch of wattle or gum and then have to buy and sell from other people around them whilst they wait for their plantation to come back into maturity. Mrs Hlombe and Mr Ncobo have slowly increased their average yield per ha and we expect their yields to increase in the future. Their wattle plantations reflect all their hard work. As a unique team they manage to achieve superior results and are a shining example of what can be achieved. Whenever we visit, they are busy adding value to their forestry/farm operations and always appear happy and humble.”

“From the outset it’s been a wonderful partnership,” adds Eza Mapipa of NTE, who has a close working relationship with Cliff and the husband and wife team. “NTE offers extension services – which includes everything from advice on fire protection, planting and harvesting. We aim to use the resources we have to empower local farmers with knowledge and skills to improve their businesses and make them self-sustainable.”

Mr Ngcobo and Mrs Hlombe deliver their bark to the NTE Hermannsburg factory where it is processed for use primarily in the tanning industry. It’s crucial that the bark is stripped and delivered as soon as possible after harvesting to make the best quality product out of fresh bark. Ideally it should be delivered on the same day that it is harvested, or at least within 48 hours.

Their timber is delivered to the NCT Ahrens depot. From there it is transported to the NCT chipping mill in Richards Bay and exported, primarily to markets in the East.

Transport is a major challenge for small growers in Matimatolo. Local transporters are unreliable and charge a hefty price for services – R500 for a bakkie load of bark and R1 000 for a small truckload of timber, which must be paid in cash.

“One day we hope to buy our own bakkie so that we can be totally self-sufficient,” comments Mrs Hlombe. “We would also like to work towards certification, so that we can get better prices for our timber.”

Eza explains that efforts are continuing to get sustainable small-scale growers like the Ngcobos certified under SAFAS, which has developed a certification system that is relevant to the African context and has been endorsed by PEFC. Although there are a number of challenges with certifying the small growers, SAFAS takes into consideration the low environmental impact of small-scale farming across the landscape and the numerous benefits of forestry to the local economy and people.

In terms of fire protection – firebreaks are hoed and all excess brush is burned to keep fuel loads down. Mr Ngcobo says that the community are quick to support one another in the case of a wildfire.

The champion tree farmers hope to buy more land in the future, with the goal of expanding their planted area to 20ha. With more small-scale growers emerging and improving their tree farms in Matimatolo, the mix of forestry and agriculture has the potential to improve the standard of living and benefit many generations to come.

*First published in SA Forestry Annual, 2021

Conservation and forestry

The NCT Tree Farmer of the Year is awarded annually to tree farming operations that display excellence in sustainable plantation management. Candidates for the award are assessed against broad sustainability principles.

The 2021 winners in the Commercial Tree Farmer category are Brendon Raw and his wife Ninette, who manage their forestry business from a smallholding in the Karkloof in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. They have built up an integrated timber business including 1 000 ha of plantations and a sawmill.

Brendon and Ninette are also enthusiastic conservationists, and have taken on the role of protecting highly sensitive grasslands and wetlands at the headwaters of a major catchment that feeds into the Umgeni River which serves agriculture, industry and rural and urban settlements all the way from the Karkloof to the coast. These grasslands and wetlands are teeming with wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. The conservation areas have been successfully integrated into their highly productive plantation operation which produces sawlogs for their own sawmill and other markets.

NCT Forestry is a leading marketing co-operative catering for the needs of independent timber growers in South Africa. It has 1 800 shareholders/members who collectively own 300 000 ha of timber, which constitutes 21% of afforested land in SA.

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