Tomato disaster: help needed now!

Faced with crop failure, farmers are laying off workers, and minimum wages make it worse.

The recent disaster in the tomato industry in Limpopo had me wondering what else farmers must do to attract government’s attention. According to reports, the industry has laid off more than 6 000 jobs in the emerging and commercial sectors due to scorching heat that damaged and destroyed many of the plants, as well as due to extremely low market prices.

At the same time, labour costs have risen due to the recent minimum wage increase. These job losses are only those which have been reported. Many farmers are not affiliated with organised agriculture, therefore employment on their farms is not recorded.

Hopefully, the farmer register will address this problem, provided of course that the Department of Agriculture manages to complete this process, which has been on and off for several years now. When I last spoke to Dr Theo de Jager of Agri SA, the reported job losses in the commercial sector alone were over 4 000, with more on the way as soon as the last tomatoes were harvested.

He said that some farmers had already told him they were abandoning tomatoes for less labour-intensive farming, such as cattle. Dr De Jager explained that tomatoes required about 16 people on 1ha during harvesting time. He added that over 60% of South Africa’s tomatoes were grown in Limpopo. I saw the devastation myself during a visit to the area. Solly Mohale, one of the largest tomato growers on communal land, has suffered major losses.

He had to lay off over 20 workers, with more to follow after the harvest. I also called on another farmer – whom I’d prefer not to mention by name – affected by this disaster. According to many, he is the largest black tomato grower in Limpopo, if not South Africa. Thinking I was from the department of agriculture, he immediately became extremely angry with me, and more or less told me to go to hell.

I tried explaining to him I was not from the department, but he was already upset and asked how talking to me would help him. This reaction mirrored what Mohale had said earlier: farmers are not getting any help from government, depite being among the biggest contributors to rural job creation.

According to Mohale, the business he had built up over 33 years could collapse in months if government did not come to his rescue. But knowing how the government operates, it could take a year before disaster relief is offered to farmers – if it happens at all.

But the problem goes beyond simply providing disaster relief. Government cannot expect farmers to carry on paying minimum wages when things turn this bad, and the solution may mean providing subsidies. The country cannot afford to lose these farmers and these jobs.