‘Farmers should be recognised’

As an ostrich farmer from Mossel Bay, Western Cape agriculture minister Gerrit van Rensburg, is arguably the only farming politician in the country.
Farmer’s Weekly asked him how this fact is going to benefit farmers in the province.
Issue date: 26 June 2009

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As an ostrich farmer from Mossel Bay, Western Cape agriculture minister
Gerrit van Rensburg, is arguably the only farming politician in the country.
Farmer’s Weekly asked him how this fact is going to benefit farmers in the province.

You were agriculture Minister in the Western Cape from 1999 to 2001. What will be different this time round?
I have more experience, and the environment in which agriculture finds itself has changed significantly. Back then, profitable farmers didn’t experience the pressures of today – input costs were low and commodity prices were relatively good.
Land reform was also in its infancy, although today it’s still not showing much progress. This time around, it’s imperative that we get it right. I hope we’ll be able to put politics aside and work in a spirit of cooperation and serve the interests of agriculture.

What will the new agriculture department’s priorities be?
Agriculture should be profitable. Only then will investors and new entrants be drawn towards the sector. We need students who want to study agriculture because they see exciting career opportunities in food production.
It’s important that the Western Cape retains its status as an agricultural province of substance, both nationally and internationally.
Food security is crucial, as well as our ability to maintain the phytosanitary standards required to export to our existing and new markets. All this must be achieved while providing a safe and humane environment for labourers.
It’s also important to me that the image of agriculture is improved and farmers get the recognition they deserve.

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Does research and development feature in the department’s plans?
Research and development are crucial to being successful in modern agriculture. Training institutions need to be maintained and research must be developed to keep the province at the cutting edge of international trends, consumer demands and able to adapt to the changing global climate.
Research is also needed on sustainable production methods to preserve our land for future generations.

How do you feel about land reform being separated from the national agricultural portfolio and will this be reflected in your provincial setup?
I’m grateful and excited about the division, as in the past, provincial agricultural MECs were often in a difficult position as land reform wasn’t part of their mandate. This often caused a conflict of interest, as agriculture is an economic function, whereas land reform is a social and welfare issue.
Agricultural MECs will now be able to focus on agriculture as an economic discipline, therefore serving the interests of farmers better.

What’s your opinion about the appointment of Tina Joemat-Pettersson as agriculture minister, and Dr Pieter Mulder as her deputy?
I don’t know them personally, but both seem to have a passion for agriculture and that’s important. I’m sure that from now on, agriculture will always be first on their agendas, and politics will be secondary.

What will the relationship be like between the Western Cape, other provinces and national agriculture, as the Western Cape is the only province governed by the official opposition?
We want to be a team player as far as the advancement of agriculture is concerned. The Western Cape has excellent infrastructure in terms of research and training.
I’m more than willing to share my staff and their knowledge and expertise with other provinces and on a national level.

What will your management style be like?
I’ll listen to all the roleplayers and stakeholders in agriculture to understand what the industry’s needs are.

Will you champion subsidies or other protection measures for local producers?
In principle, I support import tariffs that will allow local producers to farm profitably. But it’s important to remember that money earned via these tariffs goes to government and not to farmers.
I know our farmers and they are comparable with the best in the world in terms of efficient production. But it’s impossible for a local farmer to compete with an overseas government, so tariffs are one way to help level the playing field.

What’s your take on land reform?
It should be concluded as quickly and successfully as possible. I’d like to see the agriculture department becoming more involved with selecting farms and the beneficiaries to receive them. There are many retired commercial farmers who could be utilised as mentors to new farmers. If organised agriculture were to be successfully engaged as a partner in the process, success stories would start emerging. – Wouter Kriel
Contact the Department of Agriculture of the Western Cape on 021 483 4700
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