Smaller farms are not the answer

2014-07-25 00:00

GLENN Ashton makes the same mistake I have seen and heard in many other recent articles and debates about agricultural reform (“Healing the land, feeding our nation,” The Witness , July 17).

He assumes that making farms smaller will help solve the issue of land inequality and agrarian reform. If South Africa is at all concerned about food security and agrarian reform, then the key issue should not be how big or small farms are. It should be how large a piece of land needs to be to make a farm a financially viable economic unit.

This means, of course, that essential farm size will differ greatly across the country, depending on soil conditions, type of farming practised, market access and market prices, produce, labour and transport costs, climate, terrain and accessibility to a source of reliable irrigation or water.

There is a very good reason why most commercial farms in South Africa are the size they are. Namely, that is the size that is needed for a farm to be profitable.

To do the sort of high-intensity farming needed to make a decent living off a small farm, one needs ample, regular and reliable rainfall or irrigation, good arable soil, and a climate suitable for year-round crop production.

Not many areas in South Africa experience these conditions. These are also the reasons why livestock farms in the arid Karoo, for instance, tend to be much larger than KwaZulu-Natal banana or fresh-produce farms, or Cape wine farms.

One cannot compare the size of farms in South Africa, with its mostly very arid climate, short growing season, poor arable soils and difficult terrain, with places like tropical Brazil, which has a generally high rainfall, rich arable soils, flat topography, and a year-round tropical growing climate.

I suspect one of the reasons small-scale farmers in South Africa struggle is because these farms are generally too small to be really economically viable, given the conditions they farm under.

This is borne out by the fact that the number of farmers and commercial farms in South Africa shrunk from 150 000 in 1970 to 40 000 by 2010, while the size of farms has increased.

Smaller, uneconomic farms simply went out of business and the land was bought up by larger farmers.

Ever rising input costs and flat prices for farm produce have contributed to this state of affairs, as have unfavourable trade agreements that allow cheap food imports into the country from foreign countries where agriculture is highly subsidised by the state.

To claim that most arable land in the country is under white ownership is erroneous.

Vast areas in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, which are some of the richest, most well-watered arable farmland in the country, are under communal tenure.

Much could be done to improve agricultural production in these areas and assist struggling communal farmers.

Instead of being stuck on the ideology that smaller farms will automatically lead to poverty reduction and agrarian reform, the government should explore what is needed to make farming in South Africa generally more profitable and viable. This would help create the necessary conditions for smaller farmers to prosper.

• Val Payn has an M.Phil in sustainable development planning from the Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University.

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