Training is vital

2008-02-22 00:00

THE headquarters of the Department of Agriculture (and Environmental Affairs) is based at Cedara.

KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Agriculture and Environmental Affairs Mtholephi Mthimkhulu recently moved his offices to Cedara from Durban. This move is good news as it is vitally important that the minister stays in close contact with the workings of his ministry.

It has been stated that Mthimkhulu recently referred to the department’s 3 800 staff and is rightly concerned that only 10% are actually qualified in agriculture. The department is a service industry to agriculture and, therefore, its clients are the farmers of KwaZulu-Natal. In which case it is surely necessary that the staff are well trained in their industry.

The research and extension services of the department have played a huge role in the development of agriculture in KZN and this role is now even greater than before and especially with the large number of new, relatively inexperienced farmers settling on commercial farmland.

It has been extremely disheartening that the role of research at Cedara has been played down by officials and that vitally important researchers have been encouraged to resign or take early retirement.

This loss of intellectual competence and “institutional memory” is a tragedy that we will pay for dearly in the long term. It is a well-established fact that no country can develop without a research capability.

In the past, it has always been important to value the extension service staff as they are the ones who take the research findings to the clients (our farmers).

We have always been short of good extension officers and it is a pity that the upgrading programme for these officers was put on hold throughout 2007.

It must be reinstated in 2008 as soon as possible for the good of the extension officers and the farmers. Of particular value in their training are the practicalities of farming and the understanding of farming as a business. The researchers and the extension officers are the backbone of a department of agriculture. They are the 10% who have the agricultural training and who can help our farmers to get ahead.

It is appreciated that administrative staff provide an essential support to these officers, but the ratio should be better than 10 to one. Mthimkhulu appreciates this and can hopefully implement a better ratio. No doubt this is a great challenge to him when it is appears to be general government policy to create jobs no matter what.

There are many valuable services within Cedara that are extremely important. Those services that I have found particularly useful are soil science, where modern laboratories are used to analyse soil and feed samples; crop science, which includes plant diseases and horticulture; natural resource planning, where the most sophisticated software has been developed to show what can be grown in KZN; animal and pasture science, where I have spent many hours gathering tea and information; economics, where budgets for crops, pastures, livestock and machinery are generated annually; and engineering.

The veterinary science services are also part of the Department of Agriculture and are probably the most vitally important of all services because they are a national responsibility.

After all these years of chasing terrible diseases northwards there are definite indications that there is a move southwards again. Farmers can obtain information on farming from other sources if Cedara cannot provide it, but a collapse of our national veterinary services will be a disaster.

As my learned friends emphasise, if diseases like foot and mouth (FMD) move into Zululand from Mozambique, the world will not only restrict our exports of livestock but any other agricultural products as well. In this case what will we use our new airport for?

I feel particularly strongly for those competent veterinarians of the past who dedicated their lives to improving national veterinary security and now have to await a health catastrophe that can occur quickly or even slowly, but surely.

The transformation process that is occurring in this country is no doubt a difficult one and it is a pity that this process may result in the demise of some good things.

The challenge to Mthimkhulu is to reinvigorate those areas like research, extension and veterinary services, and above all, to engender an understating in all the members of his huge staff that they are actually employed to service our farmers.

It is pleasing to hear that the Cedara director, Modidima Mannya, has recently made a move to ensure that all technical posts are filled. This should certainly help to alleviate the undesirable ratio of administrators to agriculturalists.

• Minister Mtholephi Mthimkhulu can be contacted through his private secretary Nonto Ndlovu at 031 3682223, 082 5701990 or e-mail at ndlovu@agricmin.kzntl.gov.za

• 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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