Richmond sugarcane farmer, Brad O’Neill is the 2021 KZN Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year.
Brad impressed the judges with his commitment to precision farming, his advanced and sustainable bio-dynamic practices, and his successful value-added rum Agricole venture.
Brad, 39, will go on to represent Kwanalu and all KZN farmers in the Toyota SA/Agri SA National Young Farmer of the Year Competition 2021. He will compete with top farmers from all nine provinces in a bid for the national title and a spanking new Toyota Hilux Single Cab.
“We were blown away by the extremely high standard of finalists in this year’s competition as well as the number of entries of such a high calibre. We are inspired by the positive attitude and commitment, to not only our industry but also to our country, the young farmers displayed,” said CEO of Kwanalu, Sandy La Marque.
Top farm management skills
The Toyota/ Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year 2021 competition was open to farmers under the age of 40, male or female who are full members of their provinces agricultural unions. The judging and evaluation of the farmers and their agricultural practices, takes place at provincial level with the applicants being evaluated on all aspects of their business including their overall vision for the future of their farm/ business.
The main features on which farmers are judged is their management/ business philosophy as well as the technical competence with which their philosophy is applied.
Brad, is the second generation to farm on Seafield farm in Richmond. He took up the reins from his late father in 2010 following a career in the wine industry.
Aside from farming sugarcane, he also started the Sugar Baron Craft Distillery with his wife Marisa, and is solely responsible for general decision making and on the ground farming decisions.
Brad’s vision and his methodology are linked to best management approaches to both operations. He implements sustainable biodynamic practices.
And maintains a healthy and happy relationship with his staff through upliftment programmes, ongoing education and training, improved living conditions, provision of PPE and family insurance policies.
His vision includes growing and establishing the Sugar Baron Craft Distillery locally and internationally as a leading producer and supplier of only the highest quality rum produced from only the best sugarcane in the world.
Rum in the mix
With a love for wine-making, the young farmer established his distillery in 2017.
“We produce small, high quality distillation batches from harvesting only the best quality varieties of plant sugarcane for fermentation and distillation to produce a one of a kind rum,” says Brad.
“It all begins with healthy soils and a healthy crop whether the sugarcane is being sent to the mill or being used to produce rum. We select only the very best single varietal plant cane to produce the sugarcane juice which is then fermented before being distilled. Only the best batches are selected tor bottling,” he says.
95% of Brad’s farming enterprise is sugarcane, and 5% craft rum.
“I truly believe that we are simply custodians of this land and as such my approach to farming is one of passion and commitment to sustainable agricultural practices,” says Brad.
Soil health triumphs
Brad implements year-long fallow field programmes and multi-species green manure crops to ensure best possible soil health. No foliar pesticide chemicals are used, and he is steadily reducing the use of herbicide and chemical fertilizers instead applying organics.
“Attention to detail within all facets of my farming is paramount for me; for example, precise amounts of fertilizer and chemicals are applied per field, and only harvesting of small cane blocks to ensure freshness and high quality cane,” says Brad.
“Global warming is a real event and we have to prepare for the climate’s influence on our sugarcane. We can’t control rainfall but we can look after our soil by implementing long fallows, planting various multi-species green manure crops, applying organics and ensuring the soils are well-balanced to retain and hold onto precious moisture,” says Brad.
Brad is involved in organised agriculture and is a member of the Richmond Farmer’s Association, the Midlands South Sugarcane Pest & Disease Committee, the Richmond Fire Protection Association and is a committed member of Kwanalu.
“I farm sugarcane in a different way, with a more holistic approach where the attention to detail and sustainability are the focus, ensuring I create a legacy for future generations. Besides pushing the boundaries with new techniques and trying to consistently improve on every facet of my farming operation, I don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel but rather modifying and improving on it. I am incredibly fortunate and grateful to be living my dream of being a sugarcane farmer,” says Brad.