Agricultural education is needed

2007-11-30 00:00

Farming land will change hands from the present commercial farmer to new emerging farmers.

These changes will be brought about through restitution by which people will lay a claim to land that they believe was taken from them and are now demanding it back, or through redistribution, by which the government will provide finance for new farmers to obtain land for farming purposes.

The restitution claims are usually made by communities and the commercial farm is purchased by the government and the community is settled on that farm. These communities vary in size from 10 to many hundreds of people. These people never asked to farm and generally did not intend to farm. They were basically wanting a place to stay.

In many cases they do farm in a communal way which is to subsist on the piece of land they are allocated and which they share with the other members of the community. Their primary objective is to provide adequate food for their family and community. Seldom is the objective to contribute to the national food supplies.

The redistribution of land generally involves individuals or family groups who do intend to farm commercially. They obtain funds through the Land Bank, on the basis of a business plan based on commercial agriculture, and they intend to sell their surplus food in the national market.

The Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) are both committed to ensure that both restitution and redistribution do take place, but at the same time they are committed to ensuring that household food security and national food security are maintained. What a challenge.

The restitution claims will often result in household food security being achieved for the claimants, but this land was previously used for commercial agriculture where excess food was marketed for national food requirements. Now there is very little excess food moving from these areas into the national arena. The only way that these new farmers can contribute towards national food security is for them to be trained to produce food for themselves as well as excess food for sale to the world outside their farm. The DOA and DLA both want to see these people trained to achieve this.

Those emerging farmers who are settled according to the process of land redistribution tend to be more commercially orientated and, therefore, will contribute to the nation’s food supplies. However, few of them have an agricultural background and will fail in their attempts to farm economically. Many of them have had an agricultural experience while growing up in rural areas. Unfortunately these experiences are related to a subsistence form of farming and it is extremely difficult to change to a profit motive when you are used to giving excess produce to less fortunate people in the community. Many of these farmers do have an entrepreneurial spirit and a will to produce for sale but often their knowledge of agriculture and working in a business environment is inadequate. The only way they can become successful is to be exposed to the skills they need. Once again appropriate training is vitally important.

The government appreciates that everyone settled on previously commercial land requires training of some sort if South Africa is going to continue meeting the nutritional needs of the whole population. What training is available and is it adequate?

The best training for agriculture is hands–on training. That is, working on a farm and being exposed to both technical and financial aspects of production. A farmer’s son is the ideal candidate for this, but very few of the emerging farmers have been exposed to this. Many of them may have been labourers or even managers on a farm, but very few of them were exposed to the financial realities of farming. I have run business courses for many of them, including labourers, managers and many people with university training, and there is strong appreciation for the need to know the technical aspects of production, but even at the end of the courses the profit motive is still not uppermost in their minds. To survive in a commercial environment it is vital to have a profit motive and, therefore, those selected to provide the nation’s food must be adequately trained in the business of farming.

Unfortunately, whether the new farmers are settled through restitution or redistribution, there is no real selection process. Those who apply for land will often receive it regardless of their capabilities of making a financial success. My apologies to those individuals in the DOA and DLA who are trying so hard to ensure that these farmers succeed. They are currently losing the battle.

Without adequate training we will lose the battle to feed the nation.

If you have not been raised on a commercial farm where do you get training? The obvious places are the agricultural schools, technikons, colleges, universities and extension officers.

Next week we will look at these agricultural institutions and service providers.

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

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