Are we nurturing our future farmers?

The matric results confirmed that my son’s career choice of becoming an engineer (he wants to build robots) is a good one.

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The number of matriculants who are able to get into a post-graduate engineering course is frighteningly small, and it makes one wonder who will develop our country’s much-needed power stations. I used my son’s dream of building robots to try to motivate him to study for his first-ever exam in grade four. However, once he realised he would face countless days behind a desk until his early 20s, he switched to becoming a professional cricketer.

Despite both his grandparents being part-time farmers, becoming a farmer has never entered his mind. How many grade fours intend becoming farmers? Too often we hear of farmers who in their old age have to sell their land because none of their children is interested in taking it over from them. The US journal Rangeland features an interesting article on a study into the demographic trends of agriculture in the state of Wyoming from 1920 to 2007, and by implication, the country as a whole.

The researchers found that the average age of people working in the agricultural industry (farmers and farm workers) has increased by 40%. If this trend continues, by 2050, no fewer than 34% of farmers will be over the age of 65, with an average age of 60. A survey conducted by Agri SA suggests that the average age of a farmer in South Africa is 62.

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So, the question is: what are we doing to nurture our future farmers? Creating an interest in farming goes beyond having a wishy-washy agricultural subject at school. You cannot teach children a love for the land from a textbook. And it is becoming ever more difficult to teach them determination and patience. Children of today are used to instant gratification. If they don’t like a TV programme, they flick to another channel. They don’t have to wade through library books to research projects; they can use the Internet.

They don’t even have to work too hard to study, as they are allowed to fail a grade only once, and education standards have been lowered to accommodate their dwindling ambitions. Some youngsters question the need for education at all, when they can make a lucrative ‘living’ out of crime.

Farming is a long-term project. It can take years to see the results of your efforts, and there are few rich farmers. If farming teaches us anything, it is that it takes time to nurture something worthwhile, and so if we’re not nurturing our future farmers, we must not be surprised when our children don’t consider farming as a career. Too often, we’re so caught up in our struggle to ensure agriculture’s future, we forget to ensure there will be people to take advantage of that future.