Going commercial with Grain SA

As development programmes across the country struggle to keep emerging farmers afloat, Grain SA’s farmer development programme is using a big-picture, people-focused approach to launch these producers to commercial level. Annelie Coleman asks what they’re doing right that the agriculture department isn’t.
Issue date 13 February 2009

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As development programmes across the country struggle to keep emerging farmers afloat, Grain SA’s farmer development programme is using a big-picture, people-focused approach to launch these producers to commercial level. Annelie Coleman asks what they’re doing right that the agriculture department isn’t.

Emerging farmers are making
it commercially in the tough, high-risk grain sector, thanks to Grain SA’s farmer development programme. In fact, it’s been so successful that this year Grain SA is dropping “emerging” and “commercial” categories from its Farmer of the Year competition, and will base awards on yield per hectare instead. The programme operates in all provinces except Limpopo, KZN and the Western Cape. Plans are afoot to expand into the Western Cape.

A focus on people
“Developing farmers must get holistic support if they’re to take full responsibility for their farms,” explains programme coordinator Jane McPherson. “We aim to involve them every step of the way so they can eventually carry on without our support. The participants’ successes are due to their hard work, experience, skill, love of the land, a will to succeed and a willingness to implement new lessons learned.”
Government support packages may pump out money, inputs and implements, but all this is futile if you don’t develop people, Jane points out. It’s a long, slow process, where skills transfer is the critical element.
“People have to be trained, mentored and supported so they gain a good understanding and knowledge of the industry, but training can only take farmers so far before they have to apply it,” she says. “Attitude and commitment are critical. No-one can force farmers to change their production practices – they have to want to.”
The focus on the individual is important. “These farmers become our friends and we’re truly concerned about their future,” she explains. “It’s also critical that the people assisting them are informed, competent, knowledgeable and skilled – there’s no point in having the blind leading the blind.”
The big picture
Emerging farmers have to learn they’re in business, with profit as the bottom line. Once they’re equipped to select good production practices, plant the right crop, sell at the best price and minimise costs, their chances of success increase annually as they gain experience.
“Our programme is certainly affecting food security,” Jane says. “Farmers are using hybrid seeds, fertilisers and chemicals and achieving better yields overall. It is our passion to ensure the sustainable and optimal use of natural resources, livestock and other crops. Good farming practices have to remain the programme’s focus.”
The programme is funded by the various grain trusts – maize, sorghum, oil and protein seeds and winter cereals. The farmers are serviced through study groups, demonstration trials and farmers’ days, partnerships with other organisations, the Farmer of the Year competition, the Advanced Farmer Programme, training courses, radio broadcasts and a monthly newsletter, Pula/Imvula.
Working with government, agribusiness and commercial farmers
“The agriculture departments cooperate well with us – we’re partners who share a common vision,” says Jane. “Initially there was scepticism and an unwillingness to work with us, but we work with those who are willing. We don’t want to get Brownie points or claim the farmers as our own. We want to see them succeed and the more help they can get, the better.
“We’ve done a lot of extension officer training – they’re generally academically qualified but lack farming experience and basic farming skills. We’re spending a lot of time on developing skills like calibrating planters and sprayers, determining the potential of soil, and basic mechanical maintenance and repairs.”
Developing a relationship with the authorities is important to Jane. “Those in government who know what we’re doing and are committed to developing black farmers appreciate our efforts. We’re building our relationship through credibility and hope and aim to even participate in policy formulation and intervention design.”
She says many commercial farmers offer a helping hand and are building a united, prosperous agricultural sector. There are also several agribusinesses that do wonderful work – McPherson singled out MGK in Brits, which runs a comprehensive development
programme, and mentions NWK, OVK, VKB and Senwes.
Funding for the future
“We’d like to get the youth involved in the agricultural sector,” says Jane. “We’re planning on updating the current Grain SA Schools Programme and expanding it to all the provinces, teaching children at Grade 3, 7 and 9 the value of agriculture and its many career opportunities.” She adds that they’re looking for partners who could help them with funding.
In the light of the worldwide food price crisis, Grain SA would like to increase its support to subsistence farmers too, through a new programme which would have to be funded from other sources.
“Rural people should ideally start farming for their own use and expand towards commercial production,” says Jane. “We’d like to start a programme focusing on household food security, particularly for those on communal land.”
For more information contact Grain SA on (056) 515 2145.     |fw

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‘Profitable farming with education and training’ – Moss Malo
Moss Malo of the Lichtenburg district in North West says Grain SA’s farmer development programme has taken him from subsistence to fully fledged commercial farming. He planted some 300ha to maize and sunflower last year and plans to expand to over 500ha this year.
Moss, a previous Grain SA Developing Farmer of the Year in 2005, says the key to the programme’s success is the fact that Jane McPherson and her team care deeply about people. “The Grain SA team is genuinely concerned and dedicated to accompanying the participants all the way from subsistence to commercial farming with a hands-on approach, and the participants know that,” says Moss. “This programme is practical with a clear understanding of the challenges and problems facing emerging farmers. That distinguishes it from other, less successful programmes. Without it I’d still be a struggling subsistence farmer.”
Moss attended his first course in 2004 at Nampo Park near Bothaville. “It was a course on effective grain production and a turning point in my life. I realised how little I knew, although I’ve been farming on my own since 1980. The importance of profitable farming was drilled into us, and it remains my motto to this day. I’ve attended the courses regularly since then and the training I’ve received has stood me in good stead. I’m now a commercial grain farmer producing over 750t of grain per year. If I’d had access to such information when I first started farming, I’d be a millionaire by now!”
Moss was particularly impressed with the management training. “It’s broadened my horizons. I learned the value of sound financial principles, proper staff management and precision record-keeping. Grain SA taught me the value of education and I even completed some training outside their fold.
“The one thing I came to realise was that farmers must farm proactively, and we can only do that with proper education and training. We can’t farm like our fathers and grandfathers did. We must development a winner’s mentality with the ultimate goal of optimum profits. Grain SA’s programme has unlocked the possibilities of commercial farming for me, and I urge all new farmers to join as soon as they can.”

Why Grain SA’s programme is so important
Programme coordinator Jane McPherson lists a number of reason for the programme’s success:
Agriculture is the world’s source of food and fibre and remains the cornerstone of many economies, particularly developing ones.
The world is facing a crisis of food shortages and land needs to remain productive.
Agriculture is an important employer.
Rural prosperity reduces the pressure on stretched urban resources, and reduces migration to cities.
If 30% of our land is to go to emerging farmers, 30% of agricultural production will be in their hands, and they’ll buy 30% of agricultural input.