Creating a good crop of farmers

2011-11-26 15:48

Colins Forbes believes farmers should train their workers until they become self-sufficient commercial farmers

Is theory better than practical learning? Does practice make perfect?

Colin Forbes, a physician and owner of Athole Farm in Amsterdam, Mpumalanga, believes on-the-job training is the best form of education.

With his work in the medical field being relatively stable, Forbes – who says neither of his two jobs is a hobby – is redirecting his energies towards calming emotions in the land ownership debate.His solution is a multi-pronged model.

It encourages farmers to voluntarily forfeit portions of their land to government, which must buy it on behalf of workers to produce self-sufficient black commercial farmers.

This, he hopes, will guarantee the country’s food security and inject economic development into rural areas.

Forbes has already donated a tenth of his 5 600 hectare farm to his workers, and is mentoring and training them in commercial farming, particularly in aspects of management and entrepreneurship.

“In four or five years I’ll have turned some of my workers into commercial farmers,” Forbes explains.

“I learned farming from my father and know that this kind of mentorship is better than college or university education.

“It’s easy to do with workers because they have technical skills and one needs to work on their attitude.

“This is what every white commercial farmer should do. Workers must be trained until they can stand on their own.”

He hopes the government will support the initiative by buying the 560 hectares he donated to his workers.

He says for a white farmer land is his identity or extended ego – but he has done this for the good of the country.

Forbes’s proposal comes a few months after the rural development and land reform department released its green paper on land reform.

The paper recommends the establishment of a land management commission and land valuer-general to solve ownership and pricing issues while re-emphasising the government’s aim to transfer 30% of agricultural land to blacks by 2014.

It points to weaknesses in land reform policy, such as a distorted land market in the willing-buyer, willing-seller model; a fragmented land beneficiary support system; declining agricultural contribution to the gross domestic product; and the increase in rural unemployment.

Earlier this month, workers started planting maize on a 32 hectare piece of land using Forbes’s tractors and implements.

The farmer is funding everything – seeds, manure and fuel – from his own pocket.

They have moved their mud houses to a piece of land adjacent to the Armsterdam/Ermelo road, where there’s a primary school and where a new agri-village is being established.

If the government buys the land, Forbes says, he will put back 75% of the purchase price towards the workers’s houses as the mud structures were not part of his dream.

“I want to present this as an alternative blueprint for land reform,” Forbes says.“White farmers like myself have had the benefits of apartheid.

“The future of the country depends on us and we’re the only people who can assist to mentor and produce black commercial farmers.”

Most Athole worker families, like Anthony Maseko (53), have been living with the Forbes family for generations.

He was born on the farm and has reason to believe his future looks bright.“(Forbes) gave us this place.

I think this is the first to happen. It’s now up to us to make it work. I want to be the best farmer and stand on my own,” Maseko says.

Another worker, Sibusiso Madonsela (32), says: “We’re getting training and that is better for us.

“There are many farms that government has bought for people in this area, but they’re lying fallow.”

Ntokozo Nzimande, a farm dweller and project manager for Nkuzi Development Association, the land reform non-governmental organisation, says Forbes’ model is sound and could work well if the government comes to the party.

“It’s a good start and a good model if government supports it,” Nzimande says.

“There are instances where farmers make their land available but government does not buy it.

“The workers should have title deeds, otherwise they will lose ownership when the farmer who donated is no longer there.” Forbes is aware that his idea might be viewed with suspicion.

“People may ask what my agenda is,” he says.

“I’d hate to see this farm going to ruin – all the sweat and toil going to waste.

“I’m not presenting myself as a Mother Theresa.” Forbes has a suggestion for farmers who might be reluctant to impart their skills.

“They must be subjected to some kind of a disincentive,” he says.

Agri-SA spokesperson Annelize Crosby says the union does not prescribe worker empowerment to its members but encourages them to get involved in these kinds of initiatives.

“There are various ways of empowering farm workers,” Crosby says.

“This is but one possible option.

“There are numerous examples of larger farmers entering into equity shareholding schemes with their farm workers.”

But she is not entirely optimistic about Forbes’ project because she says many farmers owned small enterprises with a modest turnover.

“These farmers will not survive economically if they sell or donate 10% of their farms, and in many cases (this portion) of a farm will not be an economically viable unit,” says Crosby.

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