Practical training crucial

2008-03-07 00:00

AGRICULTURAL education is vitally important if we are to continue producing our food requirements for South Africa.

Of greatest importance has been on-farm experience supported by agricultural schools like Weston and Zakwe as well as colleges like Cedara. The Mangosuthu Technikon in Durban has not been very successful because it provides a purely academic agricultural training.

On its research farm in Howick, Stockowners Co-operative trained many of the technikon students in the practicalities of livestock production. It was obvious that the students who had had two years of academic training specialising in animal husbandry were afraid of animals as a result of not having had exposure to handling livestock during their first two years of training. Surely more practical training should be incorporated into their course at the technikon.

At a higher level, students are trained at the local university where the agricultural training over the past 50 years has been exceptional. This training is particularly good in crops, livestock, pastures, soils and economics.

It is very unfortunate that the previously integrated agricultural faculty has been transposed into an amorphous collection of subjects dispersed over a whole range of colleges, faculties, schools and programmes or disciplines. (See the website www.ukzn.ac.za).

The School of Agricultural Sciences and Agribusiness, which has nine programmes or disciplines which include animals, crops, horticulture, plant breeding, forestry and agricultural economics, does not include such subjects as pastures, soils and genetics, which are found in a variety of other schools.

Call me a traditionalist, but to separate pastures from animal science and soils from crops is as mad as putting a ram with your cows and a bull with your ewes.

There is a large degree of unhappiness within the university and great concern regarding the consequences of this.

What has created this situation? The University of KwaZulu-Natal was well known for its liberal status. In fact, us oldies thought it was a bit of a communist institution, but at least open-minded thought was encouraged. Currently there is so much control over the previously open minded staff that they have little control over their own decision-making abilities.

If you want to destroy a work ethic start telling a previously motivated staff member how many hours he or she has to work and check him or her all the time. Good academics do not have time limits. They are dedicated to their work and put in as many hours as they possibly can. Too many of them are now saying if the “headmaster” wants us to clock-watch then let’s do it.

That is how to destroy a good university through destroying the motivation and work ethic. The better academics just leave for other places while others will hold on for as long as possible. Maybe it is appropriate that they now refer to them as “schools” rather than “faculties”.

Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, was considered one of the jewels of Africa. I can assure you it is not so sparkling now. Can we expect the same to happen to our previously excellent university? Let us at least protect our faculty of agriculture and return it to what it was.

My apologies to those academic friends of mine who continue to make a difference at the university. It is a great pity that we have lost special scientists like Dr Neil Ferguson, who left for greener pastures after being trained by our internationally famous animal scientist Professor Rob Gous.

Professor Mike Lyne, a leader in agricultural economics, has also moved on. We have lost Gous to retirement but hopefully he will continue his world-acclaimed poultry research at Ukulinga, the university’s research farm.

Agricultural training through schools, colleges, technikons and universities is important and we are depending on our MEC for Agriculture Mtholephi Mthimkhulu to continue with his positive role in fixing agriculture by getting the desired effort to this sector of agriculture.

Let’s train our new farmers in agriculture before settling them on farms that were previously productive.

• Alastair Paterson is an agricultural consultant. He can be contacted at 033 330 4817, 082 880 9002 or e-mail agpaterson@satweb.co.za

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