On your own? You’re at risk

Small-scale farmers who belong to organised structures are at a distinct advantage.

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The recent drought that killed more than 2 000 cattle in Limpopo had me wondering why most smallholder farmers, especially those living in communal areas under a traditional authority, still do not see the importance of belonging to an organised structure. Vast numbers of South Africans live in communal areas – in Limpopo the figure is 59,2% – and many of these people farm in one way or another and keep a few animals in the backyard.

Some run a considerable number of cattle. I strongly believe that had these small-scale farmers in Limpopo been organised, far fewer cattle would have perished in the drought. As it is, many farmers lost their only source of income. Obviously, membership of an organisation does not automatically guarantee farming success or eliminate the effects of a drought. Moses Chichindua, chairperson for Afasa in the Dr RS Mompati district, North West, told me that organised farmers near Vryburg, a naturally dry area, had recently lost several hundred head of cattle.

Nonetheless, belonging to an agricultural organisation is certainly a step in the right direction. At the best of times, small-scale communal farmers lack access to information. By operating outside a formal organisation, it is even harder to get access to information. The government could do better, of course, to disseminate information to these farmers, but why make the situation worse?

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Even when a disaster like the recent drought occurs, it’s almost impossible to collect data from these smallholders. Gideon Morule, North West Afasa chairperson, said that his organisation still had not determined how many cattle died in the recent drought, because it was so difficult to get the facts when farmers were scattered all over the place. Farmers, in turn, don’t seem to realise how data can help them. If government does decide to offer relief – unlikely as that might seem – they will need to work from accurate livestock figures. How else could they provide compensation without risking massive overclaiming by farmers?

Knowledge is power
But information involves more than just livestock data. It’s about knowledge. Farmers who belong to a formal organisation are usually better informed about conditions in their area. Representatives of organised commercial farmers and organised smallholder farmers in Limpopo told me that none of their members had reported dead cattle. Yet those 2 000 cattle had perished in exactly the same area. The reason, I believe, is that the organised farmers had the appropriate knowledge to plan ahead and make the right decisions.

Many commercial farmers in this part of the province are game farmers as the area, being prone to foot and mouth disease, is a declared Red Zone. When the drought struck in that area, many farmers could do nothing but watch their cattle die, because they could not market them outside the area. Why do people continue to expand their cattle operations in these areas? It is because they are not properly informed.