Extension services to commercial farmers in ruins

While the KZN Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development hails its extension recovery programme a huge success, there’s been a virtual collapse of extension services to the commercial farming sector, reports Robyn Joubert.

- Advertisement -

Extension services in KwaZulu-Natal spent less than 2% of its man-hours on commercial agriculture, a source in extension told Farmer’s Weekly.“The marginalisation of staff post-1994 has led to an almost total loss of staff with experience, expertise and credibility in advising commercial farmers (black and white), and a severe shortage of mentors within the department to help equip the extension officers to step up to the challenges they face,” said the source.

In the past, the commercial sector benefited from highly qualified extension officers (EOs) with very strong research support from Cedara. Now, 80% to 90% of the assistant and deputy managers working in extension hold diplomas and not degrees. In many cases, added our source, their knowledge hasn’t progressed beyond what they learnt at college and from working in mostly small-scale, non-commercial agriculture.

Furthermore, most specialists employed by the department have a general Bsc Agriculture degree and didn’t pursue any subject in depth. This means EOs receive inadequate scientific back-up.In September last year, Siddiq Adam – the department’s acting head of department who was replaced in April by Dr Sizwe Mkhize despite reports that he was introducing major shake-ups – said the measure of effective EOs should be yield increases.

- Advertisement -

If this is so, the situation is dire.“In some districts,” said our source, “as much as 25% of commercial farmland has been transferred under redistribution and restitution programmes, but the economic output of those farms is down by 70% to 90%.” An EO who wished to remain anonymous said their role now involves helping land reform beneficiaries access funding. EOs are running around trying to do project management instead of advising farmers, said the EO.

It is possible to get results when funds are rolled out hand-in-hand with competent extension services, though. The liming programme on about 200ha in the municipal areas of Okhahlamba (Bergville) and Imbabazane (near Estcourt) over the past seven years has seen significant yield increases – from 0,5t/ha of maize to more than 4t/ha, with some individuals getting 8t/ha on dryland.

A land-rental programme was also run, enabling successful farmers to expand by accessing arable land not being used productively by other households.But according to our source, the department’s extension recovery programme, introduced to “fix” inadequacies in extension services, is window-dressing and doesn’t address “the real practical competencies” an EO needs to help a farmer make sound decisions. However, Kuben Moodley, the department’s general manager of strategic support services, insisted the programme is achieving its goals. “It’s impact is so great we’ve become a model for other provinces to follow,” he said.

According to Moodley, the programme seeks to recruit, retrain and reskill EOs and make them more accountable and visible. “We employed 34 EOs in the past financial year and this year we’ll employ another 30,” he said. “We hope to narrow the farmer: EO ratio from 1:500 to 1:350. By the end of next year, KZN will have 1 000 EOs.”Branded uniforms have been ordered and performance incentives introduced. “In the next 10 days we’ll be launching smart-pen technology in two pilot projects,” he added.

This captures the advice the EO writes out for the farmer and transmits it to a server at Cedara, where the extension manager checks it. Moodley added that the department has also entered into partnerships with industry bodies, such as Grain SA and the South African Sugar Association, to further bridge EOs’ knowledge and skills gap. He conceded it’s hard to keep experienced researchers at the department and EOs often felt uncomfortable visiting commercial farmers, who may have greater knowledge than them.

“That’s why we’re upskilling their diplomas to degrees and why we’ll only employ graduates,” he explained. “We’re seeing the results already. Commercial farmers must now be confident to call on our guys. I think we’ve reached that stage now.”

Contact Cedara head office on 033 355 9100 and KZN agriculture department’s strategic support services on 033 355 9396.