Food for Africa

2008-07-18 00:00

LAST month I spent time in five countries to the north. At some stage a return home had to happen but arriving back in Howick and reflecting back on these countries I realised that you cannot leave Africa.

Fifteen magnificent sunsets in Botswana alone, the wildlife, the pleasant border posts in Namibia and Botswana contrasting with the shambles of the Zambian and Zimbabwean borders, but of greater importance are the challenges of poverty, hunger, Aids and overpopulation. Such challenges — alongside the beauty — continue to inspire us in this unsettled continent. By contrast the squeaky cleanliness and order of Switzerland, Canada and Australia have little appeal.

Travelling south to the Eastern Cape is somewhat different from the northern countries. Outside Pietermaritzburg the maize yields are excellent. Further south in East Griqualand the last summer season was not so good but there are still acceptable crops that will contribute towards South Africa feeding the starving people of the subcontinent.

What a pleasure to travel from Matatiele to Maclear on the new tar road. I soon came across the massive exotic plantations that many believe must be eliminated from our rural areas because they are alien. Let us not forget that these same plantations provide jobs and wealth to the people who would otherwise be held in the poverty trap so common to Africa.

I travelled through the old settler towns of Ugi and Elliot where the air is fresh and then turn west towards Barkley East and the stark mountains that rise up to the highlands of Lesotho. This is real sheep country and soon I was winding along valleys where any flat land is planted to winter pastures like oats and rye grass.

The ewes are happily settled on the lush greenery in contrast to the sombre and dry brown veld resulting from the vicious winters common to this region. Lady Gray is not far off and the closed valleys open up to the beginnings of the flatter Karroo veld where the rainfall is obviously lower but the veld is sweet and cattle do well.

In the past the commercial farmers here could make a good living out of 150 cows and 1 000 ewes but obviously the income is not enough for the modern family to live on. I wonder why? Maybe our forefathers sent their children on horseback to the local school rather than private schools far away. Maybe they ploughed with horses rather than tractors.

No doubt they knew that their livestock got fat on grass and not on metal. In the old days they certainly did not have double cabs and a flat in town. Their lives were that of a farmer who lives his life out on the land — a tough but real life.

No doubt the financial squeeze has come to these farmers as a result of increasing input costs and many have risen to the challenge and begun to use all their abilities to survive and prosper.

Along the road from Aliwal North to Queenstown many farmers share their country living by providing bed-and-breakfast facilities for travellers. Some of the farmers have found that they do have an ability in this direction and often, to their surprise, find that a small business can make far more money than their livestock operations which they had guarded so carefully for generations.

These farmers have bashed the old paradigm that said that all you can do on a grass farm is let livestock eat the grass. That is far too easy in this competitive age.

Moving to East London on the coast I passed through the old towns of Cathcart and Stutterheim. These used to be centres of sheep production with up to 50 000 sheep being sold in one day at Cathcart. Hard to believe these days when there are few sheep left in the area.

As the locals say: “Sheep are so nicely packaged that they are easily carried away”. Theft has had a huge impact on the sheep population. In many cases the sheep have been replaced with bigger packages like cattle but these have their own “wheels” so can be driven off.

Closer to East London the bush thickens. The land here is being sold at high prices relative to its agricultural productive value. Many of these farms near the main road are magnificent in terms of aesthetic value. That is, they are wonderful places to live but they do not have an agricultural potential to create wealth or even a decent living. No wonder many of the youngsters move to town.

Towards Port Elizabeth, the importance of dairy production becomes obvious and even in the winter the kikuyu pastures are green. These are supplemented with even greener irrigated rye grass pastures and there is definitely a feeling of improved farming.

By travelling along the coast I missed the hinterland around Bedford and Adelaide where the grazing is magnificent and farms seldom change hands from one generation to the next because they are so valuable.

It is good to be in South Africa where you know our commercial farmers are making a significant contribution to feeding those less lucky to the north of us.

Let us never forget what Africa has to offer in terms of beauty and challenges.

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

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