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Updated 06 Jun 2020

Succeeding as a young farmer in today’s challenging agri industry

Do you want to be a farmer, but you’re not certain if you can make a success of it? Sure, there are risks to consider, but these agri insiders believe you can thrive.

14 June 2018  Share  0 comments  Print

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John Denniston, founder of Shared-X, says more than one billion people have moved out of extreme poverty in recent decades. However, 80% of people that remain amongst the poorest of poor still live in rural areas.

He believes that to eradicate poverty to a greater extent and create self-sustainable communities where entrepreneurship thrives, a new way of thinking is needed in the agri sector. Denniston has developed a model for agribusiness that could help young farmers in particular, flourish in an increasingly challenging agriculture trade.


In an interview withYale Insights, published by Yale University’s School of Management, Denniston explains that the planet’s estimated 500 million smallholder farms produce 80% of the developing world’s food: “But to a great degree they operate in inefficient informal economies.” That’s why he developed Shared-X, to help farmers become efficient.

Challenges young farmers experience

Denniston says that in many places around the world, weak government structures make it almost impossible for farmers to prove land ownership, excluding them from formal markets. This is particularly the case in South Africa, where land redistribution remains a contentious issue in the agri sector.

Related: How food producers could approach a water-scarce future

“Shortage of storage infrastructure also means that farmers consistently lose a significant portion of their crop to spoilage. And, they sell the remaining crops into oversupplied markets when prices are at their lowest,” he explains.

It’s contended that emerging farmers have limited access to information about more valuable crops or better farming techniques. “They lack financing for tools, supplies, crop insurance and seeds,” Denniston adds.

Proof that young farmers can succeed in the agri trade

Young SA Farmer of the Year award winner, John Griffiths left school in Grade 10. Speaking toFarmer’s Weekly, he recounts that his father (who also farmed) was unhappy with him leaving school at such a young age.

Today he’s considered an agri pioneer who shares similar beliefs as Denniston when it comes to being solution oriented on the farm. Griffiths is an established irrigation farmer with several smallholdings on the outskirts of Brits.

“I was at an agricultural school, but many of the things I learnt by myself. My father also taught me a lot and you learn a great deal from just being involved in the industry,” he says.

Fresh thinking and abundant yields

Farm -field -lettuce

Like Denniston, who is trying to change the way farming has traditionally been done, Griffiths does things a little differently on his farm.

The challenges

Griffiths grows maize, cabbage and spinach across 400 hectares. But, his farms extend over several small pieces of land – with approximately 20 kilometres separating the furthest farms. This means he works with a variety of conditions –  in different soil types from sandy pits to clay basins.

“The ongoing drought has been a severe trial for the irrigation farmers in the area. We were informed at the beginning of the season that our dam had about one month’s supply of water in reserve. The municipality advised us not to go ahead with planting,” he says.

Divine intervention

If you can’t plant, you can’t generate revenue in this game. Griffiths defied the odds, planting anyway. “I went ahead and planted beans and butternuts,” he says. “At the end of the month, it started to rain and the dams were overflowing, and we managed to produce a good harvest.”

Related: How to choose the best workers for a farm

No relying on luck

An abundant rainfall might have come as a blessing to Griffiths, who took the risk and planted at the request of the Brits Municipality, but it wasn’t his only strategy. Here are a few tactics that young farmers like Griffiths use to ensure they run sustainable, successful agribusiness:

1. Use of chemical fertilisers is the way to go

“On this scale, using only organic fertilisers is just not viable, but we do make use of organic matter to improve soil health,” Griffiths explains. “Before every planting we do an analysis of the soil quality to determine fertilisation needs. We can then correct the soil nutrition where needed. We also work plant residues back into the soil for organic material.” 

2. Smart water use keeps everything flowing

“To irrigate 400 hectares takes a great deal of work, water and planning,” Griffiths says. “We have 22 pumps that send water from the Crocodile River directly to the farms through centre-pivot irrigation and overhead sprinkler systems.

3. A dynamic, enthusiastic workforce is essential

“I have a full-time team of 35 workers and three managers. We also get in between 50 and 300 seasonal workers at harvest time,” says Griffiths. There are 24 vehicles in use across the farms that include tractors, bakkies, trucks and a harvester. “Each tractor driver is responsible for his machine and has his name painted on it. It makes the guys proud. Each driver looks after his tractor and ensures it’s in good condition.”


Standard Bank can help Agripreneurs like you with financial solutions, and insights on trends influencing the sector. We have dedicated agribusiness sector experts who can assess your business model and advise on whether you’re going in the right direction based on your financial resources in-hand, and other future capital needs.

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