Let’s grow SA’s agri sector!

At the Afasa congress in Pretoria earlier this year, agriculture minister Senzeni Zokwana made a strong case for sensible, ongoing discussions between stakeholders, and the return to a good work ethic in the public sector. These, he said, are important for effective transformation in agriculture.

We have to work together to protect our country’s agricultural land. Developers want to use this land to build malls because some people don’t see the value of agricultural land.

Extension offices
Farming colleges are the key to successful production in the agricultural sector, by turning out prospective farmers. The agriculture department is working hard to revitalise these colleges. Soon after I became minister, I visited the agricultural extension offices in my home town, Idutywa, in the Eastern Cape. Here I saw three officials sitting around a heater. They asked me how they could help me. I replied: “You can help me by telling me what your duties are from Monday to Friday”, and they told me they were planning to write their reports.

The agriculture department allocates funds for extension and agriculture services to the provinces but we have no say in how that money is spent. The officials said “we are making a plan” but there were no plans, no pens and no paper. We must change this culture so that dedicated public servants work for the people. I do not blame these officials, I blame their leaders. Smallholder farmers need competent extension officers to help them and prevent them failing as a result of preventable mistakes.

Extension officers therefore have to study and improve their research capacity for the good of the industry. Farmers’ concerns with regard to extension services must be taken to provincial premiers who will meet with the relevant farmers. On the other hand, we must make sure that farmers use the support they receive properly. I recently visited a farm where I found tractors with their manifolds wired up.

Government has bought many tractors that they have lost track of; I believe some are sold the day they arrive on the farm, or disappear even before they arrive. We must change this attitude and become ‘copreneurs’. I promise you that this department is going to change. I know the pain that you feel when your sheep die and snow falls on your young crop. I also know that stock theft is a scourge suffered by many farmers.

Worker ethic
We must change workers’ ethics – imagine a thriving sector where teamwork is key. The department has technicians who can analyse your soil and assist you with livestock – invite them to your farms. Your animals don’t need to die, there are cheap and even free veterinary medicines available, as well as 30 mobile clinics. Find out where they are.

Conservation agriculture, for example the no-till method, is a good practice that saves money and keeps soil health intact. The Eastern Cape has a big future ahead for maize production. The question is: are you ready to produce when the time comes?

Fire and finance 
There has been a number of bad runaway fires recently. During the outbreak of fires, farmers get understandably emotional and disregard their own health and safety. We need to strategise and plan the best methods for controlling fires, so that we are prepared, especially in high-risk areas.

Securing funding

I know that farmers struggle to secure loans, but the department has a loan facility – so let’s talk about how we can help you get the ball rolling. We also need to fight the resistance to risk exposure when it comes to soft loans from the Land Bank, because without the bank’s loans, agricultural growth remains a dream. We are currently working on proposals to present to the minister of finance, and as a creative, innovative team, we’ll win this battle.

Farm workers

We need to deal with the challenge of farm worker evictions when times get tough. Farm workers and their families are dependent on landowners for accommodation and have nowhere else to go. I believe in the future of smallholder farming. I want to take smallholder farmers to where the finance, markets and land are, and create a culture in which their farms can become sustainable. Commercial farmers with all their knowledge and experience should work with the department to grow the smallholder sector through mentorship. We must also stop being seasonal farmers, producing only in summer when it rains, and must start irrigating.

Jobs and marketing
It should be ‘sexy’ and ‘cool’ to farm. This is how we can ensure that the youth sees farming as a good career option. On a visit to Limpopo, I was impressed to find that land under the authority of the chiefs had been made accessible to women. These women have their own agricultural programmes that are supported by government. We must make more opportunities like this available so that we can produce smarter and increase agriculture’s 2,8% GDP contribution.

As government, we must change the environment and create sustainable policies, so that farmers can do their work. I expect Afasa and AgriSA to endorse the principles of the minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti’s 50/50 proposal. He is not ‘mad’; he is driving the principle that land belongs to those who work it – you, the farmers. The myth that black farmers struggle because they are lazy is just not true.

For so many years black people, 87% of the population, were deprived of land and relegated to only 30% of the land. We are changing that, but let’s be smart and do it in such a way that nobody ‘bleeds’. Let’s do it through dialogue. I know that commercial farmers accept this. An organisation or industry thrives when it has a happy, healthy workforce. As farmers, we must create employment, whether temporary or permanent, to change the lives of the unemployed.

We offer policies, partnerships and opportunities to farmers so that the land can be used properly and we can transform lives. I am happy to share ideas with farmers, so that we can help one another and commit to agriculture. Nobody can do it alone. Finding markets is a big part of success and this needs government assistance. I hope this friendship between the department and Afasa will strengthen, so that every small farmer can be seen as a potentially bigger farmer. I won’t say use your land or lose it, but I will say – use it or lease it. – Nan Smith

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The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.