The lash of lockdown: A potato farmer's story of resilience

Potatoes SA shares Limpopo Province potato farmer Johan Holtzhausen’s story as he details how he had contracted Covid-19 and at the same time faced challenges that his business went through due to Covid-19 restrictions with minimal movement and the costs that came with operating under such conditions.

When the socio-economic devastation of Covid-19 struck South Africa, Limpopo Province potato farmer Johan Holtzhausen pulled out all the stops to protect his workforce against the pandemic.

Pooled from a radius of 45 kilometres in the valley between Roosenekal and Steelpoort, the staff of farming co-op Ortus Boerdery were safe and secure – their wellbeing and work properly taken care of.

Ironically, Holtzhausen became the only person from the co-op to contract the coronavirus; bed-ridden for at least three days, on oxygen, fearing for his life, and self-isolated from his next of kin.

The #WhenHopeWhispers campaign by Potatoes South Africa, launched some three weeks ago to look at the human drama of the industry at a time of duress, could hardly ask for a more riveting recollection of resilience, inspiration, and innovative determination to weather the Covid-19 storm.

Here is his story: 

In what way did Covid-19 ask the most of you?

One of the biggest challenges was complying with safety measures in curbing infection through the movement of farm labourers. Thankfully, we live in an isolated environment where most of our permanent workers find themselves in a secluded situation. However, when it came to making use of temporary workers, things got trickier.

Temps must be transported on a regular basis. Due to – social distancing our costs in this regard doubled as you cannot transport the pre-Covid-19 amount of people at the same time. The way we had to keep people safe by spacing them apart literally meant two trips where we used to do one. It added at least an hour to travelling time.

It also meant that where we used to provide transport for people from 7am, we started bringing them to work from about 4am. In addition, we had to scan them for possible symptoms. Of course, we also had to provide sanitiser and PPE gear – with the latter costing us an arm and a leg, due to the high demand coupled with hefty pricing at the onset of the pandemic.

Eventually, the cost escalation forced us to suspend transport for temporary workers because we simply could not afford it alongside a minimum wage hike.

Another logistical aspect of last year’s lockdown, especially during the early stages of the outbreak, was the availability and accessibility of parts and agricultural necessities such as chemicals. The movement of ocean freight was affected by the delay of vessels calling at our ports, a consequence of supply chain restrictions which is still the case.

As a result, farmers have since learnt how to plan for the unthinkable. The impact brought on by Covid-19 trade regulations subsequently led to an increase in import expenses. Of course, nothing can make up for the frustration linked to waiting for input material. Where a machine part in the past took three to four days before it became available, it now takes two weeks or more before it is delivered to a point where a farmer can fetch it – if you’re lucky.

How was production affected by the virus?

Essentially, we are potato seed producers, meaning we provide seed potatoes to both seed and commercial growers. However, depending on the cultivar, it is either produced under contract or to be sold in the open market. With regards to the open market, we are solely responsible to ensure that all product produced, gets sold. Within the Covid climate, where the impact of change is rapid, this can be a risky position in the market.

At this stage, the cultivars we produce are processing varieties that are grown on a contract basis. As a result, we fell back on contract production work to guarantee we remain sustainable.

This adjustment in strategic operations can be ascribed to the pandemic, which necessitated that we evaluate and re-think – how to secure our position in the market. As a result, we fell back on contract work to guarantee that what we produce is taken up.

In today’s climate, production costs have increased to the extent that as a producer you need to build market intelligence that will inform wise farm to fork decisions.

The potato industry in South Africa has sixteen production regions that go to market at different times of the year. For the Eastern and Western Free State, marketing season commences in February. These regions marketed potatoes under extremely strained conditions in 2020 due to the Presidential Address that changed life as we knew it. South Africa has a diversified route to market in respect of its product offering which is supplied to fresh produce markets, formal and informal sector as well as the export market. National fresh produce markets remain the biggest seller of fresh produce in South Africa, however, with Covid-19, industry observed supply chain disruptions, with a reported 20% of stock trading occurring more direct.

The pandemic has indeed created an atmosphere of uncertainty, where producers increasingly compete for alternative marketing avenues and secure distribution points. Moreover, it has fundamentally altered supply chain dynamics.

What about the impact this has had on the operational cost of your business as a producer?

For potatoes earmarked towards the processing industry, mainly servicing restaurants, hotels and fast-food outlets, Level 5 and 4 regulations did have an adverse impact. Operational costs such as transport, suddenly took on a different shape, due to travel regulations that imposed limits on the capacity of all modes of transportation. In our instance, travel costs per person increased from R29 – to an estimated R55 for every worker’s transport per day.

The issue of minimum wages was at the forefront of most agricultural news. As producers, we had a responsibility to absorb any financial knocks brought about by an increase in minimum wages. Contrary to market perceptions, the nature of our business prohibits us from passing these costs on to consumers. 

Our contractual obligations stipulate that prices are determined and specifically set on an annual basis. As producers, we do not adjust prices as we see fit. Prices are negotiated with our clients well in advance and when the outbreak happened in March last year, we were already in production.

Was there light at the end of the tunnel during this trying time?

Yes, indeed. We were fortunate enough in that there wasn’t a serious incident of mortality related to Covid-19 and/or crop-related pests and diseases. We were well prepared to safeguard ourselves against -the usual production demands on the farm

We are experiencing above-average summer rainfall. It is imperative that we – protect our crops against erratic weather conditions (too much/too little rain) to ensure we produce a good harvest and contribute towards food security.

Product innovation is something the industry has deliberated on for some time now. The pandemic has fast-tracked the pace at which the industry was approaching innovation. Fresh is great and remains the industry’s biggest offering. We need to explore processed offerings that have a longer shelf life.

What we can confirm is, potatoes remain the world’s most significant non-grain food. In times of crisis – be it health, hunger and poverty, the potato industry of South Africa plays its role in positively contributing to these socio-economic challenges.

What about the overall picture?

Well, apart from the pandemic’s impact, overhead costs such as Eskom’s rising electricity tariffs had to be included into our cost calculations. We must strike a balance between escalating expenses and rampant unemployment for example. People in the informal sector are our buyers, yet increasingly they battle to make ends meet. This is despite potatoes being an affordable staple.

Hawkers especially, play a vital role in the supply of food between farmers and the consumer. Not only were they prevented from trading floor access because of movement restrictions, but in many instances households with dwindling disposable income due to layoffs, simply could not afford even a basic feeding necessity such as a small bag of potatoes.

How do you remain hopeful?

Farming is an act of faith and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Together with our labourers we remain resilient and believe that whatever challenges come our way also present us with new opportunities.

When our permanent workers were asked at the beginning of the outbreak if they wanted to go home, they all, to the last man, preferred to stay on and see this thing through.

It takes tremendous courage and conviction in one’s commitment to the task at hand. Working with such people is one of the reasons I love being a potato farmer.

#WhenHopeWhispers, meant to shine a light on the lives of the potato industry’s people at a time of tribulation. It will culminate on 5 May with the State of the Potato Industry Address (SOPIA), an inaugural initiative by PSA.

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