Image matters! Now’s the time for farmers to take action

The COVID-19 pandemic has handed farmers a golden opportunity and we dare not let it pass. Let’s work together to boost the public image of farmers and farming, says Peter Hughes.

Image matters! Now’s the time for farmers to take action
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Lockdowns have made people weigh up the real priorities of life, and food supply comes top of the list. For the first time in my life, I’ve seen public expressions of appreciation and thanks to farmers for having kept the food supply going.

Adding to this new-found positive sentiment, the agriculture sector was South Africa’s star economic and employment performer in 2021, and this is likely to continue. The recent Bureau for Farm and Agricultural Policy Baseline forecast continued production growth for almost every agricultural product, with exports expected to grow steadily.

This is remarkable, and a great credit to the farmers of this country, especially considering they’re stuck down on the southern tip of Africa, with vast distances separating them from their major export markets, and having to produce in one of the world’s most water-constrained regions.

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The agriculture sector needs to strike while the iron is hot and capitalise on the shift in public sentiment. We have come a long way since Jannie de Villiers, the now retired CEO of Grain SA, told Free State grain producers that they should get to work on their image.

He stressed that they needed to be well-versed in English to negotiate with government and should change their dress code, as khaki clothing was associated with war, not with farming!

Planning our approach
We cannot let this opportunity pass us by. We have a much greater chance of winning hearts and minds now than we did back then, but there are big questions that we first have to answer:

  • What needs to be done?
  • How will it be funded?
  • Who will do it?

In searching for existing initiatives by farmers or farming organisations to tackle South African farmers’ image problems, my only discovery was Friends of Agriculture (, which was started under the auspices of Free State Agriculture in 2018.

Hats off to them, but it’s not ambitious enough. Since they began, they have gained a meagre 59 followers on their Twitter account, which gives you some idea of the long, hard slog ahead.

But surely we can find the people and funds to launch a significant professional communication effort, inviting and involving the public and leaders in our society to learn about the benefits of modern agriculture.

Educating the public
There are so many avenues that could be used. Other than providing the popular media with entertaining information about farming, there are a wide range of opportunities to teach people about farming and its products. They include:

  • Launching well-managed and targeted communication through all social media channels;
  • Introducing farm tours;
  • Visiting classrooms;
  • Getting conversations going in grocery stores;
  • Addressing local council meetings;
  • Reviving (and revamping) the wonderful agricultural shows of yesteryear.

By my latest count, there are some 30 product-focused commodity organisations active in South Africa, and each has regional committee structures.

There are 12 national and provincial agricultural industry organisations, and they too have local committees.

There are also a number of processor and exporter organisations, all dependent on primary agriculture for their existence.

All of these organisations and their members have much to gain from helping to build and maintain the positive image of farmers that took hold during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Critical mass
I’m talking here about the launch of a huge, ongoing, professionally managed initiative that advances the understanding that South African producers are the providers of food for the nation, not just ‘farmers’.

It’s an initiative that should involve organised agriculture, all commodity organisations, and all export and processor associations, at national, provincial and local level. Anything less will never have the scale to make an impact.

Now is the time for the leaders in agriculture in South Africa to stand up and make a move.

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.