The lucerne industry is one of the smaller sub-sector of the agricultural industry. The industry is mainly broken down two distinct parts, lucerne seed and lucerne hay. In the recent past, the lucerne industry has been operating under challenging conditions, ranging from weather challenges to the sales of non SA standard lucerne seed as SA standard. Compounding the problem has been the challenge of the amount of lucerne hay that is not officially recorded and as such not paying the levy dues. It is, however, encouraging that big lucerne hay purchases require certificate of quality and that can only be done through laboratory equipment that is calibrated by the National Lucerne Trust (NLT -https://lusern.org). The NLT is the administrator of the industry’s statutory measures and oversees the trust assets. The statutory levies that are instituted in terms of the Marketing of Agricultural Product Act No. 47 of 19996 as amended. These levies are used to fund generic activities of the industries such as research, export promotion and market access or consumer education to mention but a few. One of the conditions of approval of the levy is the allocation of 20% to transformation which must be used in line with the transformation guidelines (https://www.namc.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/NAMC-Generic-Transformation-Guidelines-as-amended-in-2018.pdf).
Lucerne grading is scientific with a bit of art
As I now understand lucerne grading is done through to three tests – physical observation, moisture content testing and laboratory testing of nutrients. I must admit that my understanding of the grading is limited. The first round of these tests is done by the producer (observation, moisture and lab test). Then the producer declares to the buyers the lucerne availability in terms of volume and grading. The buyers often do a second test with the producer to confirm the declared volume and quality. Once the two test reconcile a sales agreement gets implemented. The equipment to test moisture content and its attributes become very important – the required moisture content varies from one buyer to the next but between 16% and 18% seem to be an acceptable range. Noteworthy, the laboratory equipment needs to have the National Lucerne Trust calibration which also provides a certificate. Under normal conditions the farmer pays for the costs of laboratory testing, however, smallholder farmers who are in contact with the NLT have their costs absorbed by the NLT. It seems that the basing of the prices is a bit complicated, at least, on the side of the producer. The buyers often have higher negotiating power on the basis of information. It is said most of the disputes in the business normally occur on the pricing and associated quality attributes.
On regular basis the NAMC visits the transformation initiatives of each of the industries, last week a visit to the lucerne industry was undertaken. It is important to say from the onset that the industry is on the right track with its transformation approach. Over the past years the industry has been working with a number of black farmers in North West. Their working arrangement had a huge element of mentorship which to a larger decree came as creating dependency of the back farmers to the mentor. Recently the industry started to work with two black farmers in the Eastern Cape (Craddock and Somerset East). The National Lucerne Trust invited the NAMC transformation Desk to be part of the visit they were making to the two farmers in the Karoo. The aim of the visit by the trust was to expose the two farmers to lucerne sampling and physical evaluation of lucerne hay. The physical evaluation involves a look at the foreign matter in the bales, the colour of the bales as well as ensuring proper storing to avoid losing some of the attributes. The process of taking a representative sample from a lucerne lot involves identifying a representative sample (it was said to be around 45% of the lot). The sample needs to be as representtaking sample using a tool kit, the storage process of the sample. Access by black farmers to these testing kits is covered by the National Lucerne Trust. With the two the farmer communicates the available amount of lucerne and test results, depending on the prospective buyer these tests can either be taken as are or verified by both parties. There are three important aspects of lucerne quality that need to be done: a) cleanliness, b) moisture content, and c) nutrient analysis. The combinations of these give the two parties the grade of the lucerne and sales are facilitated on these features.
NLT transformation support package provided
The NLT support ranges from mentorship, technical support as well as inputs. Technical support ranges from assistance with sampling process, moisture content testing and the way of doing physical evaluation. The mentorship involves a wholesome assistance to smallholders by the mentor. We have indicated our discomfort with the mentorship approach as it seems to create dependency. We are very impressed with the technical assistance as it is aimed to assist already existing producers to optimise on their hay returns. In the last engagement, we visited the farms where the NLT provided the following assistance:
Each of the two farmers received lucerne seed (10 bag of 25kg mass); and
The NLT provided access to the moisture content testing equipment.
The NLT also provided access to the lab for nutrient analysis that will be covered by the NLT.
One of the interesting part of the visit was to realise that one of these farmers is a mohair producer who is also part of the Mohair Industry intervention. This implies that this farmer has access to technical support of the two of his farm major lines setting the farm for better prospects of success.
Some of these industries in agriculture are not mostly spoken about but very important. The striving merino sheep production, the angora goat farming are striving on the back of vibrant lucerne production. However small the lucerne industry it transformation work is taking shape and with close working relations with governments in the provinces that produce lucerne the National Lucerne Trust can increase its footprint.