Empowering emerging farmers

The government claims that it wants to develop tens of thousands of new farmers in the next few years, yet its support for emerging farmers remains hopelessly inadequate.

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Visiting some emerging farmers recently reminded me yet again that the development of farmers has simply gone nowhere during the past few years. The majority of semi-commercial farmers in business today are not the products of any government institution. Instead, they have worked extremely hard to get where they are. And most of them are not surviving solely on their farming operations. They have other businesses that keep them afloat.

Take for instance Jonathan Lefakgomo of Mmametlhake, Mpumalanga (see Farmer’s Weekly, 4 May 2012). He has been trying to farm for years and has encountered many problems. Had he not also been in the taxi industry, he wouldn’t have had a single cow left by now.

It takes years for a farm to begin making money. If farmers have nothing else to keep them going during this early phase, they have little hope of survival. Despite this, state support for emerging farmers is far from adequate – especially considering that the government claims it wants to develop 50 000 new farmers in the next four years or so.

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There have been many efforts to empower emerging farmers since 1994, but little has been achieved. Finance and skills development in particular need to be revisited. Financing the emerging agricultural sector is not as straightforward as financing commercial farmers. Emerging farmers need special attention.

That, after all, is how the present commercial farmers got to where they are today – by receiving special attention from government. Unfortunately, the new government rushed to abolish institutions such as the agricultural marketing boards that gave birth to our commercial farming sector. And it failed to replace them with anything capable of producing tangible results.

Banks say NO
The commercial banks are a no-go area for emerging farmers, while Land Bank has done little to support emerging farmers. It is more interested in financing established farmers than playing a significant role in meeting its mandate as a development bank. And not much more can be said about other government structures, such as Khula and Mafisa, whose ‘footprints’ are all but invisible.

As for skills development – eish! The current state of our extension services explains why they are failing to empower emerging farmers. Salam Abram, a portfolio committee member for agriculture, forestry and fisheries and an ANC MP farming in the Free State, says that he has not seen an extension officer in 15 years.

During Lulu Xingwana’s reign as minister of agriculture, we were promised an extra 1 000 extension officers. What happened to that undertaking? Developing emerging farmers is certainly possible, but we need leaders who can come up with the right recipe and sound public policies.