A microcosm of SA agriculture

The 14 August issue of Farmer’s Weekly is a microcosm of South Africa’s agricultural sector.

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First, there is the untapped potential of emerging farmers and the rot of corruption mirrored in the Eastern Cape’s underutilised Qamata irrigation scheme. This potentially empowering scheme was handed over to local communities when the former homeland of Transkei was incorporated back into South Africa.

Without any training or organised structure put in place to oversee the running of the scheme, it soon foundered. Infrastructure was allowed to fall into disrepair as no one wanted to foot the maintenance bill, while equipment was often sold off or stolen.

Seemingly, the only outcome of the attempts to revitalise this scheme has been a few more corrupt individuals lining their pockets. After all this, barely 800ha is under maize this past season, while nearly 4 000ha of prime agricultural land lies largely underutilised.

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Contrasting this community’s struggle, is the experience of commercial farmer and renowned sheep judge Pikkie Rossouw. The skill he has accumulated down the years as a farmer is a priceless commodity he wields expertly to maximum benefit. It is precisely such knowledge and skill that the Qamata community and many other communities like it are in desperate need of. This brings us to another facet of the agricultural sector: transformation and the exchange of knowledge.

In an interview, Omri van Zyl, Agri SA’s new CEO, talks frankly about the slow pace of transformation. He stresses the importance of a balanced approach. Qamata is the result of unsustainable transformation, which when done for its own sake will result in the agriculture sector becoming unstable.

We need more emerging farmers emulating the example of Hennie Lamprecht, who started small, built on his knowledge, and slowly developed a viable market – surely the cornerstone to any successful farming enterprise. Too often we also see transformation projects on a grand scale, thinking that as long as we throw enough money at the project it will succeed. It takes time to acquire the necessary skills, so it’s better to pay school fees on smaller-scale projects, where the cost of failure doesn’t affect huge numbers of people and cost the taxpayer untold millions of rands.

To round off our analogy of a microcosm, there is the uneven playing field of producers, as described in our ‘By Invitation’ column. Farmers remain at the mercy of a consolidated retail community which dictates producer prices. To make a profit, farmers have to produce en masse while keeping production costs as low as possible.

Consequently, most farmers cannot afford to pay their workers so-called living wages, nor contribute to transformation. Through collective bargaining, however, producers might regain some influence over the prices they are paid. And everyone, including farm workers, will benefit.

No matter what level of skill or available resources, without off-take at sustainable profit margins no farming operation can survive.

The conclusion? Our sector needs to expand or else face an implosion.