Economics driving farmers out of business

2012-11-22 00:00

Jean Barker’s article ‘Wine Crisis Exported’ (The Witness, November 20th) written from far off, first world California deserves a rational response from an on the ground South African farmer.

The number of commercial farmers in our country has declined from 65 000 when I started farming in 1983 to 31 250 today. Earlier this year, two families across the river gave up their financial struggle to survive and put their farms on the market. They found jobs in the fast food sector. Each surviving farmer feeds 1600 people per day, collectively feeding our nation of 50 million.

The number of employed farm workers has declined even more drastically, adding to that huge pool of unemployed. In KZN alone 43 000 farm jobs have been lost since 2008. The higher the minimum wage, the more farmers are forced to mechanise. Jean Barker would apparently like to see our wage rates equal those of the America’s and Europe. On their wine farms, a highly sophisticated machine harvests and processes the grapes and one highly skilled worker is employed, albeit at a good salary, to drive it. More and more first world farms are dispensing with hired labour altogether and in the dairy sector, one robot milks seventy cows all on its own.

A choice I had to face recently: seven parents on my farm, after much searching, couldn’t find work for their matriculated sons. So they implored me to employ them at the current minimum wage of R7.71 a hour. I had large quantities of organic fertilizer to load and distribute on my fields. I could either purchase a Chinese imported front end loader at R9 600 per month, or employ these young men at a collective total of R10 528 per month. I wonder what choice Jean Barker, living in California, would have made. I chose the former and seven less people are employed.

What does Jean Barker want South African farms of the future to look like? My wife and I recently attended a cattle congress in Australia and noted the farms for sale. I could relocate to a Queensland ranch of 30 000 acres carrying 2 500 head of cattle. Thanks to computer operated stock handling facilities and a mustering aircraft, I wouldn’t need to employ anybody. The ranch in the past employed Aboriginal herdsmen, but unaffordable minimum wages forced them to mechanise. Today Aboriginal communities have the worst unemployment, alcoholism, child abuse and suicide levels in the world.

South Africans can do better than that.


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