Agri research in SA starts with farmers

Government spending on research is decreasing. It’s up to South Africa’s farmers to stay at the cutting edge. They’ve done it before and can do it again!

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

It was the mid-1970s, and redscale (Atriplex rosea) was giving citrus growers grey hair. This is a small insect that sticks to the surface of the fruit, making it unsaleable.

If not controlled, it will debilitate the tree itself. No matter how well we sprayed, we were left with large quantities of fruit that could not be exported and it was costing us millions of rands.

This was in the days of the control boards, and the Citrus Exchange, as it was called, had a research team based in the Lowveld grappling with the scale problem. They turned to the owner of a small agricultural workshop in town for help.

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As it happened, he was friends with an aeronautical engineer who had gone farming. Working with the entomologists from the Citrus Exchange, these two brilliant men built a sprayer that used air, not water, to carry the insecticide onto the tree. The rest, as they say, is history: the Eagle airblast sprayer revolutionised the spraying of citrus.

It was not a new concept. It had been tried in the leading citrus research centre at the time, California. But the Eagle was far superior to their design, and it became the international standard for airblast spray machines.

Rescuing the avo industry
At the same time, root rot (Phytophthora cinnamomi) was causing havoc in the avocado industry worldwide. This fungus attacks the roots of the tree and slowly kills them. It thrives in wet conditions, but without regular irrigation, avo trees will bear no fruit. It was a Catch 22, and the fledging South African avocado industry was under threat.

At about this time, a young Hungarian immigrated to South Africa and enrolled at the University of Pretoria. After completing his studies in plant science, he was employed by one of the largest avocado producers in the country. The avocado industry was much smaller than citrus and there was no control board and no team of researchers to call on for help in dealing with root rot. Something had to be done. But what? Even US producers were stumped.

The recently established SA Avocado Growers’ Association asked all avocado producers to contribute to a research fund and turned to the University of Pretoria for help. Once again, the rest is history.

Under the supervision of the University of Pretoria and funded by the avocado growers, the newly appointed Hungarian scientist went on to beat the disease. In a few short years, a group of determined people did what hundreds of scientists in California had not been able to do in decades of work.

Why am I telling you these stories? Firstly, I was farming both citrus and avocados during this time and involved in the Citrus Exchange and Avocado Growers’ Association, and I remember being highly sceptical about our ability to solve these two serious problems. But we did.

And as political and economic analyst JP Landman wrote recently in an article, ‘Agriculture – A tale of two sectors’, we’re doing it again, with 32 000 commercial farmers today producing 40% more than 66 000 did in the late 1980s. What’s more, they’re doing it with half the number of farm workers! Never underestimate the capacity of the people leading and working in South Africa’s agricultural sector; we can take on and beat the best in the world.

Secondly, we cannot depend on government funding. The Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators, which benchmark resources going into agricultural research, show quite clearly that government spending all over the world is declining. Analysts use a unit termed ‘FTE researchers’ – full-time employed research personnel – and with few exceptions these numbers are dropping.

The research required to take farming forward into a profitable future will have to come from farmers themselves. Remember, it was South African farmers who were behind the development of the Eagle to fight the scourge of redscale and who beat root rot in avocados!