Farming isn’t for the faint-hearted

2008-12-12 00:00

THE festive season is upon us and it is time for good cheer rather than relating what an incredibly challenging year it has been for our farmers.

Sometimes it is difficult to believe that any of our farmers actually want to continue farming in this country. They seem to have everything stacked against them. The future looks gloomy, especially with the example of Zimbabwe just around the corner.

I have often stated what a wonderful life it is being an agricultural consultant, but that is not the same as being a farmer. Sometimes I am glad I am not a farmer. But there is another side to the gloom that hangs over our industry and a few recent meetings provide food for thought when we question why we farm in South Africa.

Last week, one of our best agricultural consultants informed me that he and his wife are moving to New Zealand. It appeared that they could not stand what they thought would be the inevitable collapse of agriculture in South Africa. This traumatised me. Here was someone who was at one with the bush of Africa and was now heading for that beautiful but insular country that lies close to the Antarctic.

Also last week, I was with a Swazi farmer. He had lost his farm in Zimbabwe and moved to Canada with a very young family. For a person who had run his own farm this must have been a traumatic change and after a few years Canada did not look so rosy, so he returned to southern Africa and has farmed in Swaziland for almost 20 years. He has a good life.

Again last week, a great friend from Harare phoned from White River on his way to Maputo. We confirmed that most of the Zimbabwe farmers who had moved across the border to farm in the Chimoio region of Mozambique had failed for many reasons, few of these reasons relating to their farming ability. I complained to my friend about the state of our agriculture in South Africa and his reply was that he could not believe how wonderful it was to be “down South” where life looked great.

He also remarked that his son had recently returned to Harare with his girlfriend and last week bought a house there. This sounds like madness. Who wants to settle in Zimbabwe? The answer was that his son had spent the last three years as a doctor in the

Darfur region of Sudan and Harare was a relatively fantastic place to be.

Many of our KwaZulu-Natal farmers have inquired about moving from KZN to other provinces. Being cattle farmers, they propose moving to the best cattle country like the Smaldeel in the Eastern Cape or Vryburg in the Northern Cape. This may seem like a great idea initially, but as our Vryburg farmers let me know, “things are different in the Vryburg district”. You may not have to feed hay but your licks cost twice as much because of the transport. You also spend your life drilling and maintaining boreholes for water and there is a very different social community from the one you are used to in KZN. You may not fit in. Land prices have also rocketed far above those in KZN.

The fantastic opportunities in Zambia, where you can get long leases on farm land, look good but much of this land is now owned by locals who demand massive prices for the purchase of the “free” loan.

The long leases in Botswana look real and are set at a very reasonable annual rental. The government appears to be on the side of those who intend to use the farmland productively.

Many South Africans have burnt their fingers in their Mozambique farming enterprises. There is definitely a communication problem which makes negotiations with government difficult, especially with the unbelievable bureaucracy that is the norm.

What is the point of all this? Everything is relative to what you are used to. Having been in Khartoum and Harare I would far rather be in Harare, so why would few South Africans like to be in Harare? Maybe farming in South Africa is not such a bad thing. It is certainly better than a lot of other places. I can assure you that Australia, Canada and Europe are far too squeaky-clean for myself and most of our farmers.

So let’s rejoice that we are in South Africa even if just for the festive season.

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

Please note: there will be no farming column until January 16, 2009.

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