It’s a tough road for vegetable farmers

Dear Bruce Roberts-Baxter, Your chillingly accurate letter to Farmer’s Weekly for the issue 26 February 2010, captures the plight of many farmers setting out to make a living from farming.

You talk about growing cash crops and discovering the hard way that having several farmers in the market at the same time brings prices down. Established farmers will nod wisely and say, “Yup, got that T-shirt.”

Don’t despair – this happens to all vegetable farmers. Here are a few tips to help smooth the path – establish what your market wants, when it want it and how it wants it, and grow accordingly. Aim to produce only the best quality and to maximise yields.

You won’t miss all the oversupply situations or hit all the highs. The best way forward is to develop a long-term view and then, based on that, aim to achieve as high an average as possible, as consistently as possible.

Remember, high prices are nice when you want to brag to your neighbour and low prices are useful when you’re pleading with the bank manager.

Numerous factors come into play, some of them out of a farmer’s control – but there are many successful vegetable farmers countrywide who follow the abovementioned basics.

I don’t know where you’re farming or how close to a fresh produce market you are, but if you haven’t already done so, you should visit the nearest market where you’ll see what I’m saying firsthand. If you talk to the market agents and buyers, they’ll
confirm what I’ve said.

And don’t be misled by those who criticise the markets or the market agents. When you know how to use them correctly, markets work very well. But, like the farming you have chosen as your business, understanding a market and how it works takes application and time.

There will be lessons to learn (skoolgeld in Afrikaans) but you’ll benefit because you’ll be studying at the “University of Fresh Produce Marketing.” There’s no better place for diligent and observant farmers to learn their trade than at a fresh produce market. That’s where you’ll see the best and the worst and will soon learn which to emulate and which to leave well alone.

Your comments about emerging farmers are also painfully accurate. I’ve trained hundreds around the country, but all the training in the world is meaningless when the support structures aren’t in place. Try to get that message through to politicians and bureaucrats!

I wish there was a way to make letters like yours compulsory reading for politicians. I get the feeling that the more they hear the truth, the more they bury their heads in the sand.

Best wishes with your farming