How new farmers can weather drought

At Buhle, we are often asked about how we help our graduates survive the inevitability of drought – and even whether this is possible. These are valid questions, given that we live in a water-scarce country, and that climate change is having a further impact.

Can we really equip a new generation of farmers to weather drought? And if so, how?

Drought, and water shortages are a challenge for all farmers, including new farmers among, of course. Knowledge, resources and skill are all needed to weather this challenge – and weather it, we must, because people need to eat. There is no way out of it: We all need the farmers who grow our food!

The good news is that experience is showing that there are, indeed, ways of ensuring that new farmers’ enterprises have a sound chance of surviving drought. To empower our students in this regard, Buhle teaches sustainable farming methods and water conservation techniques. We also run a farmer-support programme, helping our graduates find the optimal ways of adapting in their particular contexts.

Sustainable farming methods include:

  • Building healthy soil,
  • Drought mitigation measures
  • Planning ahead, regarding:
  1. The risks associated with each commodity (type of veg / crops / livestock)
  2. Addressing climate risks (drought, floods, and rain at the wrong time)
  • Pricing challenges

Considerable knowledge is required for this complex process, including knowledge of local conditions and local climate history, and future conditions.

When less rain than usual is expected, farmers can further adapt in many ways, including:

  • Reducing their plant densities, leaving more moisture for each plant
  • Planting crops that are more drought-tolerant, e.g. sorghum rather than maize
  • Considering drought-tolerant varieties
  • Not planting at all, if a long-term drought is expected.

We advise our graduates to diversify where possible. For example, farmers can diversity into livestock, which is less affected by short-term drought than crops. During the last drought, many of our crop farmers diversified by starting to keep cattle and sheep, and selling these while prices were high.

Irrigation is crucial for vegetable and high-value crop farmers. Irrigation water sources are farm dams, rivers, a municipal supply or, boreholes. While dams and boreholes can dry up over time, the latter will generally enable a farmer to extend the irrigation period and get through to the next season.

Increasingly, farmers must use optimal water efficiency measures. These include:

  • Centre pivot, mini-sprinkler or drip irrigation, rather than other less efficient methods such as flood irrigation and sprinkler irrigation where the evaporation levels are much higher.
  • Reduced tillage and conservation tillage, which entails mulching with organic materials or crop residues that reduce evaporation and increase moisture retention.
  • Dense planting, in a smaller, intensive and higher-value, water efficient operations like tunnel and hydroponic production. This requires an increased set of knowledge and skills.

New technologies are increasingly available for better water efficiency. For example, vertical farming, in which vegetables can be suspended in a tunnel, makes extremely efficient use of water in a relatively small space.

However, emerging farmers need considerable knowledge, and resources if they are to make use of these technologies. This is where our farmer-support programme makes a world of difference.

Buhle has been developing this farmer support unit, in which our farmer support officers visit and mentor our graduates, to help them overcome all the challenges they face, and run profitable farms. This mentorship is crucial, to help them weather the drought. And it is paying off.

Last year, our farmer support officers visited 203 farms, on which 507 jobs had been created, despite the continual threat of water scarcity in large tracts of our country. These farmers found ways of adapting, and persevered, using best practice for their own particular farms.

Below are some stories about how our graduates are thriving through diversifying, and implementing the advice from our farmer support unit:


Elijah Molefe – “Creating two part-time, and three full-time jobs”

“I have 156 cattle and a vegetable farm in Marble Hall, Limpopo,” says Elijah (pictured above, left). “My livestock provide me with a livelihood but I needed to diversify, so I started farming vegetables. All my knowledge about this comes from Buhle’s farmer support officer.

“I used the profits from my vegetables to buy a drip irrigation system and water tanks. I now have two part-time and three full-time employees.

“Buhle is always available. They have helped me a lot, honestly. I am extremely happy with all they have done for me.”

Lebogang Molefe – “My farm supports four people”

“I completed a poultry production course at Buhle in 2015, and now run a farm with up to 3000 chickens per cycle in Brakpan,” says Lebogang (picture above, right). “This farm is paying the rent and buying food for our family of four, and providing one more full-time job.

“The Buhle training was excellent, which is why my farm is doing so well, and the support officer filled in the gaps. He has also advised me to diversify, so we are planning to go into pigs and vegetables, because our soil is very rich.

“Buhle has played a major, major role in our lives. It has been superb. I would recommend them to anybody.”

Thank you for reading this blog post, and we look forward to bringing you more news from the Buhle Farmers’ Academy.


Neil de Smidt

CEO: Buhle Farmers’ Academy