Three farmers were enjoying a beer on the stoep on New Year’s day and sharing their experiences of the previous year.
The first farmer said: “It was one of the toughest ever. I worked from sunrise to sunset day after day for the whole year, and made only 1% profit.” The second replied: “I can certainly identify with that! I toiled just as hard, and my profit was exactly the same – a miserable 1%.”
The two of them looked at the third farmer and asked: “How much profit did you make?” He replied: “Well, believe it or not, chaps, I managed to make a 5% profit last year.” There was a stunned silence. “Did you say 5%?” asked the first farmer. “That’s unbelievable! How did you manage that?” “It was easy enough,” said the third farmer. “I made the same 1% profit as you did, plus 4% that represents the privilege of being able to enjoy this view, work in the great outdoors, prepare the soil and watch things grow. That gives me 5% total profit.”
I often believe this approach is what keeps farmers on the land. Although profit margins have declined substantially, they still keep on with it, because they love what they do. Although farmers are businessmen and women, most are not on the land simply to make money. And most farmers will readily tell you that farming is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme.
In Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food, author Wendell Berry puts it simply: “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: ‘Love. They must do it for love’.”
TAU SA president Louis Meintjies, in a conversation with me earlier this year, expressed similar sentiments. Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to nurture plants and animals. They love experiencing the weather first-hand. They love to live where they work and work where they live. If they farm on a small enough scale, they like to work with the help of their children. And they love the independence that farm life can provide. And deep down, they are optimistic people. They have to be. As is often said, farming is a profession of hope – hope that all will be well this season.
South African farmers, both black and white, have faced so many challenges in the past few years. Some problems have been common to both groups and others have been very different. Some have been political, and others have resulted from the vagaries of nature. But every year, our farmers have returned to the land to plant seed and tend to their herds and flocks. And they’ve always gone back hoping that the new year will be better than the last.
I have a great deal of respect for our farmers for staying on the land although so many are struggling financially. Because of their love for farming, South Africa will continue to be food secure and thousands of people will be employed. Thank you for doing what you do. And as Oprah Winfrey says, here’s to the New Year, and another chance for us to get it right!