Challenge and reward

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If we are to succeed in our endeavours to create a ‘united and prosperous sector’, two things are necessary: the one is that we have a clear picture of what we are trying to achieve, and the other is a systematic removal of the barriers that are preventing us from attaining our goal.

What is the picture of where we are going? We would like to see sustainable production on every hectare of arable land—irrespective of the size of the land. There are farmers who have access to land, but who cannot use it as a result of the challenges they are facing. There are also farmers looking for additional land to use, as they have managed to overcome those challenges.

Land, tenure and soil

In our experience as the Farmer Development Programme of Grain SA, we have thousands of farmer members who have access to land that they are not able to use for various reasons. There are some problems around land tenure in the communal areas: while there is a lot of land lying unused, farmers are not always able to get permission from the authority to use that land. In some cases, when a farmer is doing well on a certain piece of land, that land is given to someone else.

It would assist greatly if farmers in communal areas could get access to the same land for a period of 10 years or more. This would also enable them to invest in the land and in infrastructure, as they would feel a certain degree of ‘ownership’. This could be done relatively easily if the tribal authorities were involved in the broader plan to bring all the communal land into production; they could merely extend the period of the PTO (permission to occupy).
Where poor farming practices have been followed for many years, the pH and nutrient status of the soils can be very low. Particularly in the case of the communal farmers, they often do not have the financial resources to address the problem, as soil rectification can be very expensive. If this is not done, however, profitable and sustainable production will never be possible on these lands.

The reluctance to do the soil correction is also as a result of tenure insecurity, as the farmer is wary of investing in the soil if there is a possibility that he/she will not get use of the same land for an extended period. We require the Department of Agriculture to assist farmers with liming and soil correction in terms of the phosphate status of the soil—this is in national interest of food security.

Crop farming is done on the land and yet we are watching our soils degrade through wind and water erosion. It is essential that all land be properly contoured so as to prevent water erosion, and farmers must be encouraged to follow the principles of conservation agriculture so as to minimise the risks of wind erosion. Having a cover of organic material on the land not only limits wind erosion, but also assists the soil with the filtration of rain and even reduces soil temperatures. Again, the assistance of the Department of Agriculture is required to address these issues —waterways and contours have to be properly planned and constructed. Unless we address erosion, future generations will not have soil on which to produce food.

Not all soils are suited to crop production—this could be because of the type or depth of the soil, or because of the rainfall of a particular area. It is most important for an assessment to be done to see whether or not farmers can/should grow a particular crop in a particular area. It is possible to plant any crop anywhere, but that does not mean the yields possible will make that crop production sustainable and profitable. Unfortunately, where farmers are given their inputs as grants, they are not concerned about the actual profitability of production and therefore sometimes plant crops where they should not be planted.

Most of the land in communal areas is not fenced, which leads to a number of challenges. During the growing season, the livestock often get into the lands and eat the standing; during the winter months after harvesting, the cattle graze on those lands and thereby remove all the organic material that is so sorely needed for the health of the soil, and also cause large-scale compaction of the land. The costs of fencing all the lands are beyond the financial capacity of many farmers in the rural areas.

In addition to the cost of the fencing, there is an unwillingness to remove the livestock from the cultivated lands, as they do not have alternative grazing. The whole question of alternative grazing land (either natural veld or planted pastures, which could be part of the conservation agriculture initiative) would have to be investigated and followed by a realistic plan.

Extension support

Farming in general and crop production in particular is a complex field and requires years of experience to master. As a result of our regrettable political past, it was white people who had access to land and they are the ones who have developed the experience over years. Going to college and/or university will give you an excellent theoretical background, but it does not make you a farmer.

The Department of Agriculture has appointed a large number of graduates who have the theoretical knowledge but not practical farming experience. These extensioners struggle to assist the farmers on the land. We need to expose our extensioners to internships and practical training that would equip them to support the new farmers.

Mentoring of new farmers by experienced farmers is part of the recipe for success. These mentors, however, need to be part of a structure that monitors the work they are doing to ensure we all follow good modern production practices. When the farmer is being mentored, it is important that he/she should have access to the production inputs required, as well as finance for repairs etc. The mentor can advise and support, but the farmer has to be in a position to follow the advice and implement the plans. A lack of money limits the impact of the mentor.

Tractors and machinery

It is possible to plant in the region of 1 hectare by hand (and this is hard work), but as soon as a farmer has to plant more land, mechanisation has to be involved. There is mechanisation to suit every size of farmer – from hand-held tools right up to the most modern satellite-linked equipment.

Unfortunately, in the developing sector we are struggling with tractors and implements that are either very old, or in a bad state of disrepair. There are various reasons for this. In trying to address these problems, the State has bought tractors and implements. Some of these efforts have been well co-ordinated, whereas others have not served their purpose.

Firstly, there needs to be a clear understanding of the relationship between tractor power (kW) and the amount of land to be worked. We invariably find that although there may be some tractors available, they do not meet the requirements. They also have to be shared between numbers of people. If their capacity was adequate for the size of the land, sharing would be challenging enough, but due to the fact that the capacity is lacking, this leads to overworking of the equipment, and conflict between the farmers using it. There is also the question of who is responsible for the maintenance. Without proper maintenance on farm equipment, it simply does not last and turns into fruitless expenditure.

Unfortunately again, due to a lack of agricultural experience, often the equipment purchased is not entirely suitable for the work to be done¬—this has led to implements being parked under trees until they rust away.

The lack of tractors and implements in particularly the rural areas has led to the widespread use of contractors. Regrettably, this is not a sustainable solution for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the further you go into the rural areas, the higher the prices that are charged for the work. In most cases in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, the price the farmers (or government) pay for contracting is twice the going rate for the North West or Free State where there are more contractors available (the old question of supply and demand). The cost of the contracting makes the production of the crop a total loss. This cannot be sustained.

Another challenge of using contractors is the timing of the operation. Our summer season is short, and when the rains fall every farmer needs to get into the lands. While waiting for the contractor, valuable time is lost and the farmer ends up not getting a good crop simply because he planted late. The contractor is usually paid per hectare: the more hectares he can cover, the greater his profit. This leads to the contractor being tempted to rush the job and not meet the required standards.

A further complication in the entire system is that people tender for contracting contracts although they do not own any equipment at all. This is what I believe is commonly known as ‘tenderpreneurship’: the person who wins the tender has to subcontract the work. This adds to the urge for the contractor to rush to get the work done—he is not receiving all the money, and is not accountable as he is not the contract holder. A solution to this would be for the government to insist that the person to whom the tender is awarded has to demonstrate they have the necessary equipment for the size of the tender.

We believe that if we are to get all the land into profitable production, we should make it possible for farmers to have their own equipment (where possible), or share with as few other farmers as possible (group-owned equipment). We would like to see contractors only being used for some deep ripping operations (when required), harvesting and transport. Clearly, there will always be some exceptions to this where weather conditions have been particularly challenging. Overall, however, we believe successful crop production requires ‘owned’ mechanisation.

Production loans

Most farmers require production loans for crop production—this is common in the commercial sector where farmers access loans from commercial banks, the Land Bank, as well as the agribusinesses. Unfortunately, these loans need to be secured—usually a bond is registered over the property. In cases where the farmer does not own the land (communal land, state land and PLAS farms), they do not have any assets to offer to secure the loan.

In the place of assets as security, the lending institutions are willing to give a loan against a grain marketing contract of the crop to be planted. Due to the fact that the crops are planted outside (risk of weather), and that a long time lapses between planting and harvesting, the lenders require insurance to cover the loan in case of a natural disaster (hail, drought, frost, fire etc). Unfortunately, to get this insurance the farmer has to produce production records for the past five years on that land (in most cases, the farmer does not have that). A further challenge is that the insurance only covers 60% of the cost, which means the other 40% is at risk – most farmers are not in a position to use their own money for the 40% and so this is another reason the production loan is refused.

We must remember that the National Credit Act has very strict criteria to prevent institutions from giving people loans that would put them at financial risk (this could be seen as reckless lending and the institution would forfeit the loaned money). Although the credit act is aimed at protecting people from reckless lenders, in the crop production environment, it has led to more stringent lending requirements and effectively made loans unavailable to most developing farmers.

A solution to this problem is critical if we are to get all land into production—we need a better insurance scheme so that the entire loan can be covered. The cost of this could possibly need to be shared between the private and public sectors.

Training, mentoring and on-farm support

The value of proper training, but experienced people with appropriate and relevant course material, cannot be overemphasised. It is essential that the farmers know what to do and why they need to do it. These farmers should be empowered to understand what they are doing and assisted to procure the inputs they need from local suppliers. Farming is not a ‘one size fits all’ operation and each farmer needs to assess his/her soil and climatic conditions and buy the correct lime, fertiliser, seed and chemicals for his/her own conditions. Regrettably, the government often assists farmers with the procurement of inputs—everyone gets the same, and it is often delivered too late for optimal production.

Crop production is a seasonal activity and if you miss the optimal season, you will not get a good crop. When farmers are taught to be self-reliant, they will do things at the right time. We are developing a tendency among our people to ‘wait for the department’; if the department experiences any problems, the farmers plant a disaster crop. We must move away from this practice and get our farmers of all sizes to take responsibility for their own destiny.
There is modern technology available to all farmers large and small. We should expose the farmers to the appropriate equipment so that they can acquire it and use it effectively. Grants would be a blessing for the purchase of equipment as long as they are used for the right equipment.


In conclusion, a ‘prosperous and united agricultural sector’ is within our reach. Sustainable production on each hectare is quite possible if we address the real barriers we are facing. Land tenure and soil rectification, extension support, tractors and mechanisation, production loans, knowledge and mentoring – we have the solutions to the problems. If we could unite the sector, we could build the agricultural dream so many of us are hoping for!


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Issue 46


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