A farmer can’t know everything

Farming is complex, as Rian van Wyk of Jagtdrift Brangus Stud told us this week.

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A farmer can’t know everything about farming, so who does he turn to for advice?

Input suppliers, that’s who. These are the guys who, after all, are supposed to know their product inside out. But you have to make sure you find an honest, objective representative, because his job, at the end of the day, is to sell as much product as possible.

A good rep understands the value of return business as well as he knows the cost of making a quick buck out of a gullible farmer. And a good farmer, even though he cannot know everything, should at least know enough to know when he’s being taken for a ride. This is one of the problems government needs to address as a matter of urgency, according to Buyambo Mantashe.

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We visited him on the family farm near Elliot in the Eastern Cape. Giving land to people who have no idea what to do with it is not ideal, he says. A Fort Hare graduate himself, he can attest to the high number of graduates with degrees in agriculture who never set foot on a farm after graduating. The teaching profession seemingly promises more lucrative careers, and without access to land, who can blame them? Some people would say they are wise to keep away from primary agriculture.

The uncertain environment – climatic and political – is not worth the trouble. But if farming is in your blood, how do you escape the lure of the land? The answer seems to lie in having both a professional career and running a farming enterprise with the help of a family member or farm manager.

Both my father and grandfather went for this option. With the cost of land and initial capital investment being what it is, it certainly is the only way of getting a new farming operation off the ground. Many of the ‘new’ farmers we interview ran a funeral or taxi business before investing in a farm. Apart from being able to save up for a farm, they also acquired much-needed business skills in the process.

The value of these cannot be overemphasised. You might have the know-how when it comes to the production side of your farming operation, but production decisions always need to be weighed against whether or not it makes economic sense.  Coming back to Rian van Wyk: his decision to bale soya bean crop residue directly behind the harvester, for example, is based on sound economic principles. He did his sums and saw that it would save him R220/ ha.

He can also tell you exactly what it cost him per hectare to replace nutrients removed from the land in the process and how, despite this cost, it still pays to feed the residue to his cattle.

Yes, farming is a complex business and the sooner those trying to shape the agricultural landscape understand this, the better. A farmer cannot know everything, but the longer he farms and the better his advisers are, the better a farmer he’ll become. You don’t become a farmer overnight. It takes blood, sweat, and tears – and time.