Feeding a nation

2009-03-13 00:00

The training given at a university is basically an academic one, but the more practical experience the students are exposed to the better. During the eighties, the University of Zimbabwe had a particularly good application of this principle. The university farm was only eight kilometres from the agricultural faculty in Harare so the students could have exposure to the farm.

What was particularly valuable was that the farm was run as a commercial enterprise, thus giving the students not only practical exposure, but also showing them the value of economically sound production principles.

At the time, the farm was typical of a commercial Zimbabwe farm. The total area of dryland crops was 840 hectares. This was made up of commercial maize and soya beans, as well as seed production for maize and soyas. In addition, 80 hectares of irrigated wheat was grown.

The average rainfall in this area is 800 millimetres per year. The example used here is from the data available for the 1986/87 growing season where only 480 millimetres of rain fell. This is very low rainfall and was classed as a major drought in Zimbabwe. The crops in the communal areas failed, whereas this commercial farm produced a reasonable crop. This information is used to give an idea of what a farm of this nature can contribute to the nation’s food supply — even in a bad season.

That year, the farm produced 2 400 tons of maize (6,5 tons per hectare). At the time, the mean annual consumption of maize per person was 174 kilograms. So this one commercial farm provided the maize requirements to feed 14 000 people for a year.

They also produced 600 tons of soya beans (two tons per hectare). From these beans, 98 000 litres of cooking oil would be extracted. As this amounts to 122 000 bottles of cooking oil and the average family uses two bottles a month, this production would meet the needs of 5 000 families or 35 000 people for one year.

The irrigated winter wheat crop produced over 500 tons of grain (six tons per hectare). This results in 400 tons of flour and, with a 90 kilogram sack of wheat resulting in 173 baked loaves of bread, there would be close to 800 000 loaves produced from this wheat crop.

In addition, 5 200 pockets of seed maize were produced, which is enough seed to plant 10 000 hectares of maize. The seed from the soya beans amounted to 140 tons, which would be used to plant 1 400 hectares of soyas.

Apart from the cropping programme, cattle were run on the veld and crop residues. From the 950 head of cattle on the farm, 230 were sold to the local abattoir that year. This produced 60 000 kilograms of meat. With the average annual consumption of beef per person being four kilograms, the farm produced enough beef to feed 15 000 people for a year.

Thus, this university farm, which was used to train students, also contributed significantly to the food requirements of the nation.

What is the message here? It is that medium- to large-sized, well-run, commercial farms produce enough food to feed many thousands of people. This does not mean that small, commercially well-run farms cannot contribute to the national needs, but generally larger farming operations have better financial results because they spread their overhead costs over a greater amount of production.

The normal small farm, common to Africa, is usually about half a hectare. This is the area that a typical family can cultivate and manage by themselves. In a reasonable year, the grain yield off this area amounts to about one ton. This is hardly enough to feed the family, but they do subsist on this type of production. An economic evaluation of their return on capital invested is excellent because they incur very few costs, except for their own labour. However, they do not have an excess of food for feeding the hungry millions who live in town or who do not have land. In this case, the larger commercial farmers have to provide this food. In the United States, three percent of the people have agricultural land and feed the whole nation and, in addition, have huge amounts of excess food available for export to countries like Africa where there are not enough commercial farmers to produce the required food. The productive success of commercial farmers is based on entrepreneurial spirit and technical ability, combined with a huge work ethic.

The South African government is now appreciating that they need all farming land to be productive, so they are considering removing unproductive people off the land. This sounds like a bit of wishful thinking. Do they really think that these people are going to move off?

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