Moving Forward While Moving Backward

By Kassi Berard and and Patrick Frischhertz

On our visit to South Africa’s sugarcane industry, we were struck by their agronomic potential and how the apartheid and anti-apartheid movements have shaped the present and future of the industry.  We were met with a fantastic first impression with sugarcane growing on rolling hills and the silhouette of mountain ranges in the distance.  For a flat land Louisiana sugarcane farmer, it was quite a sight to see.

Dr. Peter Cronje and the rest of the TSB staff were equally as impressive and after talking over some field data, we were quite fascinated with their approach to farming.  However, it came as a bit of surprise to find out that over 90% of their cane was harvested by hand with local labor.  In Louisiana, we cut everything by mechanical harvester due to labor cost.  Then the realization hit us, this South African sugar industry is just scratching the surface of their farming potential.

Here is an industry with very fertile ground and with very little freeze threat, just scratching the surface of mechanization.  Yes, the industry is limited by their irrigation capacity, but the land and the resources appeared to be here. 

Then during our visit to an emerging sugarcane farmer’s land, we began to really understand the impact the policies set by South Africa’s progressive government has on their sugar industry.  We stepped backed and realized that South Africa’s moving in a different direction than most cane farmers throughout the world. 

In the states and many other countries, farms are getting larger to survive.  The ANC’s policy of returning land owned by large land owners under the apartheid regime to black emerging farmers is causing average farm sizes to drop.  At home, we see the larger farms farming in a more efficient and profitable manner than their smaller colleagues.  So for us, it is almost counter intuitive from an efficiency stand point.  More importantly, the industry is now faced with training thousands of small land owners on the principles of proper land management, pesticide use, irrigation, and maintenance work.  The end result so far, are some small farms achieving success, but many small farms struggling and causing wild inconsistencies on good farm land.

While we can’t completely grasp the complexities and depth at the apartheid and anti-apartheid movements, we can understand why the South African government choose this method of restitution.  It does make us greatly appreciate the stability afforded to us in the United States. 

Kassi Berard is a sugarcane/soybean producer from St. Martin parish. She farms 3200 acres and is responsible for bookkeeping, payroll, human resources and immigration for the operation.  In addition, she is secretary for St. Martin Parish Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and chairperson of the parish Young Farmers and Ranchers.  She has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and is currently working on a master’s degree.

Patrick Frischhertz is from Iberville parish and works as an assistant manager on a 2,800 acre sugarcane plantation.  He graduated from LSU with a history degree and a concentration in education.  Also, he has a law degree from Loyola School of Law in New Orleans, LA.