Gaining perspective

Farmer’s Weekly business columnist Peter Hughes reflects on the state of South Africa and the world, and in doing so realises that there’s nowhere else on Earth he’d rather be.

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Early in 2015 our granddaughter Megan gave us a plaque she made herself, which has pride of place on our kitchen wall: “I never stop thanking God for you – Ephesians 1:16”. It’s deeply touching and a brilliantly selected gift from a grandchild to her grandparents.

However, little Megan had no idea just how much of a comfort it has been to me during the past tumultuous year.

The economic chaos in Greece – the cradle of civilisation – and the unseemly scramble by the EU to bail it out; heartbreaking images of desperate journeys made by families fleeing the Middle East and North Africa; the random one-on-one stabbings of Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem; endless suicide bombers scattering blood and gore; unhinged young Americans assembling arsenals of weapons and mowing down schoolgoers; terrifyingly well-organised Muslim extremists maiming and killing residents in Paris, Brussels, Mali and Lagos; and closer to home, the steep decline in the value of the rand, the drought and the mindless determination of the formerly great ANC to self-destruct and take the country with it.

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I’ve looked at that plaque every day since we received it, and during the mayhem of last year I thought: “Never stop thanking God I live in South Africa and that I am a farmer!”

The grass isn’t greener

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But when you take a look around the world, where would you rather be, and what would you rather be doing? When you feel a sense of despair, depression and, perhaps even fear coming over you – as I did when the Zuma/Nene/Van Rooyen/Gordhan debacle hit the news – give the emotion time to drain away and then dose yourself with perspective, and watch the international news channels.

Today, as I write this, all Los Angeles schools are closed due to a terror threat. An update on the FIFA corruption scandal points to a Swiss leader purloining its coffers. Do a quick African scan and update on civil wars in Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and read about the latest throat cuttings by Boko Haram in Nigeria and beheadings by Al Shabaab in Kenya. That settles it. Here I stay and here I shall die – hopefully of natural causes!

There’s good in the bad

It has been a great year for Lowveld farmers. Export market prices of fruit and nuts have been excellent, with the weak rand the cherry on top. While the South African sugar crop is way down, the blame does not fall on the Lowveld, which has been spared the ravages of drought, unlike KwaZulu-Natal. Low sugar production has led to good prices, as there has been no need to export to a very depressed world market.

What is more, the heat wave during spring – the critical flowering and fruit set stage – seems to have done little damage. So far the water has held up, and recent good rains have set us on our way to see the summer through.

The deciduous fruit industry has also had a good year, with harvesting currently in full swing. The sector will certainly benefit greatly from the recent Zuma-induced step-down in the value of the rand.

However, while our farmers in the subtropics and temperate zones can bask in the relative success of the past year and the outlook for 2016, our central plateau-based grain and livestock farmers have not been as lucky. Perversely, as South Africa is a net importer of all grain products, the ever-weakening rand will drive the prices of all these products up, to the great benefit of local producers. The sting in the tail will, of course, be the rise in the price of inputs such as fertiliser and the like. But these will take time to filter through.

Livestock farmers are probably in for the roughest ride. When I think of them, I look at Megan’s plaque and silently say to myself: “Never stop thanking God for His guidance in leading me to choose a job that produces food”. Even in the worst times possible there is no escape. People have to eat and we, the producers, are the true kings in our own country.

So relax. As long as you run a well-managed competitive business, you, like me, will remain in South Africa until the end of your days.