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  • Writer's pictureThe Old Farmyard Forceleap Farm

Farming and Out of Africa!

As you crawl north, through the Lusaka rush hour traffic, you eventually end up on the Great North Road, heading out of town towards the far off Copperbelt. You crest a hill and in the distance, you can see a cluster of 7 small hills sticking up from the surrounding plain. This is Sable farm, the commercial farm we are staying on here in Zambia. Situated in Chisamba, which is one of the four major commercial farming areas in Zambia. Sable farm is one of around 300-400 largely white owned commercial farms in the Chisamba area. It was established in the 1970s by Dave Gordan, our host Doug’s father, who still lives on the farm. All these commercial farms are on a 100-year lease, and I guess this one must be one of the earliest ones in this area. They grow a mixture of crops, but are focussed on tobacco, as well as rearing beef and managing large areas for game farming.

The crops are grown under a pivot pump irrigation system which leaves distinctive large circles of crops that you can see from space, have a look on google earth.

The main crop grown here is tobacco, which they reap, cure and dry on the farm, before sending it for sale. The other day Doug kindly took me through the whole tobacco production process, from newly sown crops to reaping and curing the tobacco leaves. Each leaf is picked by hand and attached to clips, which are then hung up to cure in heated sheds.

After this first stage of drying, the leaves are sorted and re-baled for further curing. I must say the process looks like a bit of a ball ache to me, but it is obviously very skilful and hard to do successfully. Doug spends much of his time managing this process, constantly monitoring the tobacco, either in the field, or in the curing sheds or in the store.

Mistakes can happen quickly and can be very costly. Doug chats to the workers in their own language, and at this time of year he must inspect the sheds, and the guys manning them, every few hours, to make sure the curing process stays on track. I am so impressed by Doug’s manner and the way he speaks to everyone. I may not fully understand the process, but I admire him and guess he is pretty good at what he does! 

We also checked out some other crops growing under the pivots, such as soya and maize and I was told they grow wheat in the winter. While we looked about, Doug had to relocate some security guards to try and stop the monkeys getting into the maize, not something I have to worry about at home! Their most recent new enterprise has been to establish large orchards of macadamia trees that they grow for their nuts. These are grown, row on row of different varieties with the idea being that diversity increases resilience. So, they are harvested in slightly different ways, or have varying longevities or may be resistant to different diseases. Eventually the plan is that macadamias will compete with the tobacco for revenue at the farm.

We discussed the major differences in terms of commercial farming in England to Zambia, and concluded that the big one is labour. On all farms labour and machinery are major costs of production. The more people you have the less machines you need. In the UK, labour is very expensive and so you tend to have few workers and lots of machines, in Zambia it is the other way around. In the UK, high costs of labour mean a lot of options for your business are simply ruled out, as they will not sustain the labour needed, so are not financially viable. Anything that increases labour costs and/or reduces income, for example, reducing the intensity of production threatens the business. This creates an inexorable pressure on farm businesses to become more intensive and increase scale, rather than to become less intensive and perhaps more sustainable or environmental.

Equally, if you have a lot of labour, like in Zambia, you have other problems to deal with. While we were there, I saw one worker put an axe through his foot, and a group of young guys, who had nicked old chemical containers to put their drink in, turn up at the office vomiting as they had managed to poison themselves! They are constantly dealing with issues from sickness to stealing, relationships to bullying. I said, (only slightly joking!) to Doug “What I would give to have 200 workers able to work on my farm, then I could really make it fly!”, to which Doug responded quick as a flash, “and what I would give, to only need 2!”      

When we got back to the compound where the office is, we found Donna had just opened her weekly store for the farm’s workers. The 200-300 workforce live on the farm in compounds with their families. It is expensive for them to get supplies in, so Donna started a store that stocks the basics from soap to bread, baby porridge to razors. They can also put their purchases on credit so it comes off their next pay cheque. The farm grows some of the supplies it stocks in the store such as Mealie (Maize) and beans. Donna sells her produce to the guys at wholesale price.

Every Thursday a crowd forms around the store under the trees ready for the store to open at 15.00. It seems very popular to me and helps Donna to get to know the workers better, as she can put a name against a face, and begin to understand the relationships between people. Each person comes to the hatch and calls out their name, for example “Edith Katinga” and then “Boom powder, cooking oil, soya, beans, sweets, meat, Colgate, 2 exercise books and a pencil”. David, Donna’s storekeeper, and I gather everything together and pop it through the hatch for Edith to pack. Donna then calls, “Next!” and we move on, gradually reducing the queue.

The first store day after payday is huge, often not finishing until 7-8pm! But it petters out through the month, as people run out of money. So, payday is a big deal here! The money (all in cash) arrives from the bank and Donna and her stepmother-in-law sit in the office and count it out into brown envelopes. The workers go home after work and get dressed up for the occasion, before walking back to the office to be paid, it is quite an event! Often the following weekend, there is more reported drunkenness than normal. It feels very safe and calm on the farm, but there is a security post at the gate and the armed guard gives you a very serious and smart salute every time you leave the farm, which makes you wonder? The whole farm is fenced with further security around the fence line. So, although it might feel safe, it obviously does not feel all that safe to the Gordans! That got me wondering about how feeling safe, or feeling at risk, could affect how you behave and how you feel about the people around you. 

In the last couple of years, the farm has benefited from the construction of the large Mwamboshi Dam, that will ensure a secure source of water, which will allow them to put in more pivots. The dam benefits (and was partially financed by) a handful of white commercial farmers, but the government funding was made available to enable the establishment of a new commercial farming area for local black farmers, although it seems to be fairly unclear exactly how this will turn out. Noone quite knows how these new farmers will finance production or even know how to manage a commercial farm.

Apart from water for the farm, the new dam has also created a large lake and we have been fortunate enough to enjoy a few fun days there with Donna and Doug and their friends, messing around with boats. Hours spent fishing and watching the kids climbing onto the engines and then leaping in the water, only to scramble out with shrieks of excitement at the thought there might be a crocodile after them!

I have to say lounging around with 3-4 friend’s boats lashed together, drinking beers, and chatting while we watch the sun go down really is magical. On one evening we were doing just that, when a friend’s plane gave us a low fly by and a wing wave, much to everyone’s excitement. It all makes me think that these white farmers really do live a blessed life in paradise… but it also seems to me that they live on the edge and perhaps actually live a rather perilous existence.

In some ways they are so privileged, but in other ways so insecure. Many people at home might assume these farmers would be racist colonial types, but I think that is simplistic and not really very fair on them. I have met with nothing, but friendliness. Most of the white people we have come across have been very polite, humble, generous, and gracious. But they do seem uncertain about the future. Perhaps insecurity does affect us more than we think, I think it pervades the white community here and effects how people feel about their life here in Africa. Donna was telling me quite a funny story that demonstrates the point. She was driving into Lusaka with Doug and the kids. She was moaning about how white people treat black people, “You know it is really bad, if we break down in the car or have some sort of accident, a local black guy, with a wide smile, will always willingly stop and help, but we never stop for them, isn’t that bad?” Doug, much used to Donna’s complaints along these lines, nodded his head sagely and kept his own council, and they carried on driving. A minute later they came to Mile 10 (a busy suburb just outside Lusaka) where buses barge their way in and out of traffic and a bustling market flanks the road, alongside various shack shops and there are loads of pedestrians weaving their way in and out of traffic. As they drove in, Donna turned to the kids and said, “Kids lock your doors!” Doug laughed and said, “Now love, that is why we don’t stop for them!”

We are now heading out of Africa and so it is good byes to Zambia and next stop Australia and then NZ!

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