by Taryn Springhall

Man or machine?

Mechanisation is cropping up on farms in South Africa

The option of mechanisation in agriculture has caused great concern
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Plagued by droughts, poor crop yields, substandard seeds, wage disputes and labour strikes, the agricultural industry is under enormous pressure to contribute to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), social welfare and the creation of jobs. Increased labour and production costs have meant that the profitability of the sector has come under threat.

So much so that there is a drive towards mechanisation that has stirred mixed reactions from all stakeholders in the industry.

It is a fact that the South Africa’s population is growing by 2% per year and that the population of 49 million in 2009 is estimated to increase to 82 million by 2035. The increase means that food production or food imports have to double to meet food requirements in spite of dwindling natural resources.

Water scarcity coupled with a heightened demand for water has left South Africa with less than two- thirds of the number of farms it had in the early 1990s.

The number of farm labourers have also decreased by 46% in recent years from 1.1 million in 2004 to just 624 000 in 2012.

Strikes by farm workers demanding a minimum wage increase from R71 to R150 per day are believed to continue after the Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant announced in February 2013 that the minimum wage would be pegged at R105 per day.

The Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAUSA), a commercial farmers union has spoken out against the new minimum wage for labourers stating that it would have a devastating effect on the sector at large. In particular, the increase could result in over 2 000 job losses.

The government has responded to the outcry by allocating R6.2 billion to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to support newly established and emerging farmers who will struggle to survive the wage increases.

The fact is that labour unrest has accelerated the drive to mechanisation in agriculture because labour costs far outweigh the cost of mechanisation. Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Dr Pieter Mulder recently urged farmers to restrict their dependence on farmworkers.

In the face of land reform, increased costs in electricity, water and fuel have left the majority of farmers unable to afford the increase in labour costs. Research done by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), a think-tank for the universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria, said that it is difficult to estimate the job losses due to the increase but that it signalled a move away from using ‘cheap, unskilled labour’ to a more efficient production system that required the services of skilled labour, but less of it.

The same report by the BFAP also stated that mechanisation should not be feared. "Mechanisation should not necessarily be seen as a threat against manual labour; it should rather be thought of as an opportunity to increase the output delivered per worker and stimulate the agri-economic sector under a favourable economic and political environment". And according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a combination of human, animal and engine driven power sources are crucial in the agricultural production process for farms to be truly productive.

On the other hand, mechanisation in developing countries has been blamed for exasperating rural unemployment and contributing to other social issues, including poverty. Grain SA (GSA) is an organisation that offers commodity support and services to South African grain producers to foster sustainability. The GSA runs a farm development training programme "to develop capacitated, sustainable, black com- mercial farmers".

They have openly empathised with farm labourers and the unemployed and have advised grain producers to focus on training and increasing productivity rather than retrench or mechanise farms.

However, due to the fact that the grain industry is less labour intensive than the fruit and vegetable industries, the move to mechanisation will not have the same impact on the grain industry as other farming industries.

While the work that the GSA and other organisations undertake are necessary for the agricultural industry overall, the move to mechanisation cannot be ignored, nor can the productivity and profitability of farms be increased simply by increasing labour or creating jobs.

The general consensus is that while mechanisation will not solve unemployment, it will encourage skilled labour and thereby create jobs of a higher calibre while still increasing the profitability and sustainability of the farm itself.

A focus on modern farming technologies and implementation of such technologies will reap benefits for entire communities who stand to benefits from an increase in skills, knowledge and productivity if they are suitably trained and supported.

It was Canadian novelist and poet, Brian Brett who said that, "farming is the profession of hope" and nowhere in the world is it more true than in South Africa where every seed sown, soiled tilled and product harvested feed not only the country’s people but the country’s future.

Embracing mechanisation while offering more people the opportunity to engage and profit from the agricultural industry, South Africa will ensure that the right seeds are planted for sustainability long-term proving the adage that good seed makes a good crop.

 

 

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