First get the basics right

The agendas of Afasa and Agri SA’s recent conferences, held a week apart at the same venue in Pretoria, had striking similarities.

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At both events land reform took centre stage, supported by presentations on the availability and cost of food, with socioeconomic transformation as the underlying focus.Farmers were frustrated with the slow pace of land reform, seeing it as creating uncertainty and keeping them from the job at hand: farming.

Granted, the two groups had different ideas on how land reform would play out, but I’m not sure if anyone has a clear vision of the agricultural sector’s future. It is certain that everyone – from government to commercial banks – has a vision of how they would like it to be, and for the most part no one wants any party to be worse off.

Commercial farmers think that if they imbue developing farmers with enough knowledge, perhaps contribute financially in some minor way while government contributes financially in a big way, the sector will transform without affecting the commercial sector’s profitability. Developing farmers see a future where they have access to training, good land, water and cheap finance. They want to join the ranks of commercial farmers; they do not want to replace them.

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But there are problems. South Africa has a limited amount of arable land and water. Farmers are competing for the same market and against global players. Local farmers’ input costs are high compared with most of our competitors. To top it all off, government has a limited budget and what little money it has is split between developing farmers, land reform and the commercial sector.

To imagine a future where everyone wins is naïve. Someone will be worse off – and that someone is the commercial farmer. It is only a matter of how much he will have to give up, and if he plays his cards right, he may have a say in how much that will be. This is why so many organisations, from Agbiz to Wildlife Ranching SA, are now supporting government’s land reform initiatives. By working with government, they can ensure that land reform and development is done effectively and speedily. They can also advise government on steps that could be taken to limit their losses.

This is the reason that Minister Zokwana is now trying to ‘make the cake bigger’ by finding new markets for our produce. And there’s a lot to be done.

The two conferences made it clear that farmers were in agreement regarding steps to be taken to enable them to farm more profitably. While chasing the beautiful dream of a fully transformed agricultural sector, the agriculture department and the department of land reform should be mindful of their basic responsibility: creating an enabling environment for agriculture to thrive.