Agri schools: time to reassess

Government wants to see more small-scale farmers undergoing formal education in agriculture. For this to work, a new kind of agri school is needed, says educational consultant Dr Willem Burger.

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During his budget speech on 25 February 2015, Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene declared that the focus of agricultural training would shift to establishing small-scale farmers and purchasing land. A total of 43 million hectares has already been bought for redistribution by the state; a further 1,2 million hectares will be purchased over the next three years.

This shift in focus means that many farmers will have to be trained in a short time. For this task, the faculties of agriculture at universities are unsuitable – they are too few in number, too academic and too expensive. The colleges of agriculture can make some contribution, but there are not enough to train a great number of young farmers.

Secondary schools
Only one channel for training and preparing young people for the agricultural industry remains open – the schools. But establishing and operating such career-orientated schools must be cost-effective enough for the idea to be replicated across the country. In other words, if we are to bypass the traditional model of ‘agricultural high school with farm’ (where the various lines of production – piggery, dairy, fruit and so forth – are regarded as an extension of the classroom), an alternative is needed.

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Research in the US has identified certain criteria for the utilisation of a ‘farming situation’ for career-orientated training in agriculture:

  • The size of the land attached to the school need only be big enough to allow for training through demonstrations;
  • Those facilities for agricultural education that are not provided by the school must be supplied by the local farming community;
  • The minimum facilities required for agricultural education are a classroom, a laboratory, a workshop and a greenhouse (nursery). 

Two programmes are used to expose learners
to a farming situation in the US. The first is the Supervised Occupational Experience programme. This offers learners the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge – as acquired in the classroom – by caring for an animal at the school or at their homes, or growing crops under the guidance of the teacher. Records of all inputs, results and outputs must be kept by the learner. This necessitates good planning in consultation with the teacher.

The second is the Co-operative Part-time Training in Vocational Agriculture programme. This includes in-service training at an agriculture-related institution within the community. Examples include nursery production, intensive livestock production and maintenance of farm implements.

These US programmes have the potential for adaptation in South Africa. However, support from the private sector is crucial for this to happen successfully. The sector’s role would include making available facilities for the different production and processing lines.

To begin with, however, certain conditions must be in place for the teaching of agricultural skills and know-how within the private sector’s production and processing sites:

  • The learner’s involvement in farming production and processing must occur within a time schedule determined by the private sector and the school;
  • The teacher must, at all times, be in control of the teaching/training situation – even if use is made of expertise from the private sector; 
  • The subjects covered by the training programme within the production/processing sites must be agreed upon by the managing body (or farmer) before the programme can be implemented. Both parties must adhere to the time schedule.

Mini farms
In addition to the facilities made available by the private sector, a school should have mini-farm sections. The fruit production section, for example, could include a cultivar orchard of 21 trees where seven types of fruit (dependent on the region and market trends) of three cultivars each are planted in seven rows. There would also be a micro irrigation system with an underground pipe delivery system with one spray nozzle per tree.

The source of water could be a catchment tank on the school’s roof. Enclosures would be equipped with feed and water troughs for small batches of broilers, rabbits, pigs and so forth.

The feeding and care of the livestock is part of the curriculum – and learners can replicate this kind of production unit at their homes as part of a practical task.

Improving the current system
One can only hope that role players in the agricultural environment will take note of the contents of this article and take the following corrective actions on the education system:

  • High schools should be allowed to offer a career-orientated course in agriculture even if such a school does not have a farm attached to it;
  • Such a career-orientated course should be included in a school’s curriculum only after a situational analysis has determined that there is a need for training in agriculture in the school’s feeder area, and the farming community within that area is willing to make its facilities available to the school – in a well-organised way – for further teaching;
  • The provincial departments of education must support these schools with advice on establishing facilities for course practicals. This support must include financial input;
  • The corporate sector must undertake to offer annual short courses in aspects of agricultural production. These might include subjects such as wool classing, animal judging, and how to conduct pregnancy and fertility tests in livestock.

The department of education must ensure that standards are maintained through the assessment of assignments, tests and examinations. Monitoring of standards is even more important when learners do their practical assessment tasks.

No threat to current schools
Existing agricultural high schools are in no way undermined by this proposed new model of career-orientated education in agriculture. These schools have already made an enormous contribution to South Africa’s agriculture industry – and will continue to do so. The problem is that the model represented by these schools is not replicable because of the high initial cost of establishing such schools, and their high running costs.

Phone Dr Willem Burger on 083 626 0608, or email him at [email protected].