'Water-guzzling' farmers deserve our respect

HOW many recipes can you make using apples as an ingredient? Apple sauce, apple pie, apple crumble… when I was a child on an apple farm in the Western Cape where my father worked for the farmer, there were weeks in every year when we got sick of apples.

In season, boxes of apples not fit for sale or export would turn up outside our kitchen door. Then the fight was on to use them before that sickening smell of rot began to rise…

I grew up on farms producing apples, plums, and grapes destined for the KWV. In high school, the little bus that served farms in our area dropped us off on the dirt road between our house and the nearest vineyard; in late summer, I would take my suitcase and sit between the rows of vines, eating sun-sweetened grapes for my lunch as I did my homework.

I watched big juicy plums roll down a conveyer belt, the first lap of a journey to the grocery shops in Europe. I was there when the boar was brought to the sow; no artificial insemination here, and a lesson in the huffy-puffy-snorty realities of reproduction which ended with busy little pink bodies tumbling next to their enormous mom.

I learnt how cows were milked and how to separate the white liquid to begin making cheese. I saw green aromatic shoots push through the soil in a neighbour’s field, eventually to be pulled as brown-sheathed onions.

And in case all that sounds rather idyllic, I know exactly where the expression “ran around like a chicken without a head” comes from, because I saw it happen, along with other slaughters. On one farm, I donned gumboots regularly to clean chicken shit off the henhouse floor – and ran like hell every time the cock came for me as I was collecting eggs. Those beaks can inflict seriaas damage.

I knew from birth exactly where our food comes from. But that’s not true for most people. No, food – the third most vital factor for life after air and water – is a product, something like an iPhone or a striped shirt, which arrives in packaging and plastic wrap. It can come from the farm down the road or across the sea. It doesn’t require dung or sex or compost … or water, it seems.

When I saw the vlog about Cape water being ‘wasted’ on farming, I laughed – but then watched a growing resentment towards “water-guzzling” farmers on social media in some disbelief.

(But hey, I’ll believe any level of ignorance now, given some of the comments on Facebook water pages – did you know, for example, that there’s so little water in Western Cape dams because “the fracking up north has created problems with the underground water and perhaps blocks the ducts”? Another commenter disagreed, though: "...this is a political game chemtrails and all. Day z will not come.")

'No farming = no food'

“…food is not mysteriously conjured out of thin air and a few barrels of chemicals in factories, from whence it lands magically in shops,” explains water blogger Helen Moffett. “No farming = no food.”

Water is the sine qua non of farming. It is an important  limitation to South Africa’s ability to feed itself – at least in crops: “Climate-soil combinations leave only 12% of the country suitable for the production of rain-fed crops. With only 3% considered truly fertile land […] Most of South Africa’s land surface (69%) is suitable for grazing…”

Our staple crops are largely rainfed – those endless fields of mielies in the Free State and North West Province, where three quarters of the crop is grown. In an average year, we produce about 12 million tons of maize.

My heart turned over when I saw the dried-up, unplanted Free State in early 2016; I was sure maize imports would push prices up for the most vulnerable. And yet, with careful timing and scientific planning, last year our farmers produced about 17 million tons of maize.

Farmers like Edwin Thulo Mahlatsi with his 210 hectares in the Free State; following the hard, dry 2015/16 season, Mahlatsi’s 2017 maize harvest yielded him the Grain SA/ABSA/John Deere Financial New Era Commercial Farmer of the Year. (That’s a mouthful, nè?)

Agriculture helped economy grow

And PS, agriculture’s performance boosted our economy, which grew by 2.8% in the second quarter of 2017 and 2% in the third thanks to farming’s increases of 38.7% and 44.2% respectively.

Food is not just a product, a business deal, it’s a necessity and the foundation of a healthy and prosperous nation. The people who grow it do so under often difficult circumstances, now made much harder by the ever-increasing water demands from urban areas across the country; even without drought and climate change, they’d have to grow more food with less water to allow for those demands.

Techniques ranging from drones to map water flow, to clever sap monitors, to regenerative agriculture focused on water-soaking healthy soil, have helped achieve good harvests with less water. Watching orchards and soil and stock die must be heart-breaking.

Yes, there are issues throughout the food system, from transformation to environmental damage to inequalities and injustices, on the farm and through every step to the consumer – in fact, there’s a powerful case for a socially just reinvention of the whole thing.

But let’s not treat these farmers, now, as if they were gratuitously wasting water, instead of struggling to survive a terrible disaster. Please.

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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