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Precise, holistic approach to farming secures Richmond farmer prestigious Toyota Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year 2021 Award

KwaZulu-Natal’s Agricultural Union, Kwanalu, proudly announces that 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 where he will compete against top farmers from all nine provinces, in an effort to secure the much sought after title, as well as a brand 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, this speaks well of the incredibly high standard of agriculture in our province. 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.

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 which he took over at the passing of 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 is the adopting of best management approaches to both his operations while implementing sustainable biodynamic practices, maintaining healthy and happy relationships with his staff via 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.

In 2017, Brad with his roots and love for the wine-making industry, established a distillery on the farm dedicated to producing craft Agricole rum from sugarcane called Sugar Baron Craft Distillery.

“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.

“Just as with sugarcane, it all begins with healthy soils and therefore a healthy crop being sent to the Mill, so the same can be said for the single estate rum we produce at Sugar Baron. We select only the very best single varietal plant cane to be crushed to produce the beautiful golden, green sugarcane juice which is then fermented before being distilled. From this only the best batches are selected to be bottled to be sent to market,” he explains.

95% of Brad’s farming enterprise is sugarcane, and 5% craft rum. With his slogan, “farming into the future”, Brad is wholly committed to farming practices with the health of the soil at the heart of his management style, while producing the best quality sugarcane, that is defined not only by attaining the best yields but constantly evolving and improving on all areas in his ventures.

“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.

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.