Farmers, arguably, have more balls to juggle than operators in other sectors. The worst part is that these balls are growing and new ones are adding to the complexity. This is the view of Maluta Netshaulu, a leading agricultural economist, banker and columnist.

Farming is all about planning and executing on those plans within a specific timeframe. A radical deviation from this could spell disaster. Even a famous farming folk phrase, ’n boer maak ’n plan (a farmer makes a plan), might not produce the desired outcomes. You see, a farmer has to plan what to plant, when to plant, where to source their inputs and by when, when to apply fertiliser, lime, pesticides and weedicides, when to irrigate (if on irrigated land), and when to harvest. They have a very small window to execute on these plans, failing which their yield and income would then start to diminish each day past that window. Outside of production, the farmer has to coordinate and put in place certain measures to secure their income. The farmer has to take out crop insurance to protect their livelihood against the risks of climate change and natural disasters such as drought, excess rain, hail, fire, etc.
Given that insurance is unaffordable for most farmers, there is a growing trend of farmers installing other innovative solutions such as hail or shade netting to protect their produce on open land from the elements like hail, frost, birds, and sunburn whilst also improving their orchard performance – quality and yield. The market price of the crop also has to be hedged. Fixed against the risk of price fluctuation, especially below a threshold, the farmer will start to make a loss. The other risk mitigant that has become more relevant of late is that against crime. Here the farmer needs to secure the services of armed response companies and also join local policing forums as well as install surveillance technology within the boundaries of the farming property to keep their assets, family and workers safe.

The importance of diversification
Whilst still on the topic of protection of livelihoods, the farming community, especially those that are export orientated like wine and fruits, learnt something valuable during the pandemic. They learnt that diversification of markets is important, and that having some local presence in terms of market is key.
Remember when there was a ban of export produce? The wine sector took a huge hit, but quickly farmers started to adopt digital platforms to sell to the local market. Since then, digital platforms have taken off which helps to put more money in the farmer’s pocket (as these platforms cut out the middlemen), and also helps to open up the market to small and emerging farmers thus making the sector inclusive insofar as market access is concerned. When I was doing my post-grad degree at Stellenbosch University, my professors used to say that the next conflict would be about water. Back then I struggled to understand as water was plentiful and no one really reported on water shortages in residential, industrial or commercial sectors. Looking back, I now understand and appreciate their foresight and expertise. Water scarcity due to infrastructure failure, inefficiency, regulation and climate change is now the order of the day.
This important resource is now so scarce that the full potential of the sector is being constrained. Luckily, our farmers are good adopters of technology and innovation. To mitigate the risk of water scarcity, they have adopted water efficient irrigation system such as centre pivot, micro, and drip irrigation systems that utilise a fraction of the water previously used by flood irrigation, whilst increasing yields and reducing costs associated with over irrigation and chemical application – a huge win for the farming sector.
The other problem that keeps our farmers awake at night is the risk of energy insecurity. Before 2007, our farmers didn’t have this problem as load shedding was not a thing. In fact, this term was not even part of the South African vocabulary. Yes, there were power cuts here and there, due to faults and theft, which was manageable. But lately this phenomenon is having serious consequences for the viability of the agriculture sector, food security and job creation. Remember that famous farming folk phrase of ’n boer maak ’n plan? Well, our farmers are now adopting alternative energy solutions to deal with this problem.
They started with generators but since these are increasingly becoming expensive to operate due to record fuel prices, they are now switching to renewable energy and more specifically solar energy – grid tied or off-grid systems.

Certification and sustainability
As if the problems I have outlined above are not enough, farmers also have to produce according to strict production standard such as those of Global G.A.P. which prescribes the type and quantity of inputs that should be used for the produce to meet food safety and phytosanitary standards. These of course protect the consumers. And to stay in business, farmers need to produce in accordance with consumer needs in terms of taste, texture, smell, colour, shape and size. Those in the fruit industry attend exhibitions and conferences in Europe and the United States to gain insight on new trends and bring back new cultivars just so they can remain competitive. On the issue of fruit size, whilst at a site visit at an apple pack house in Ceres, the manager indicated that in Europe the consumers are now looking for smaller size apples as these are snackable and work very well in kids’ lunchboxes. And on a lighter note she mentioned that that market is also different from ours as those consumers eat fruits for nutrition and not hunger. We might need to unpack this statement in a separate article, but it is worth keeping in mind of the nuances.
The other problem that has started to take shape within the agriculture sector is that of sustainability. The need to produce our food in sustainable practices and in harmony with nature has become urgent and in other countries new regulations have been put in place to enforce this requirement.
Regulations such as carbon tax for farmers have now been put in parts of Europe to reward farmers who are offsetting their carbon footprint whilst penalising those that are not. This type of legislation is not yet in place in South African, but there are talks that it is on the way. In terms of when, I don’t know.
But the way in which farmers in those countries and in the US have been approaching this problem is to convert their farming practices to regenerative or conservation agriculture which are known to sequestrate carbon and land is often always covered with crops thus helping to trap carbon as opposed to releasing it. This is easier said than done. I recently read an interesting article and within it a certain phrase stood out for me: “You can’t be green if you are in the red.” This means converting to sustainable production practices needs to make economic sense.
There are also new farming systems such as indoor farming that also help as these systems produce very little carbon as they use a fraction of the resources used in conventional farming and no farming equipment like tractors and combines are required.

A successful succession strategy
Succession planning is also a big problem in the agriculture sector where the average farmer age is just over 60 years. With the number of commercial farmers (producing 80% of the food) drastically declining every year, the problem of succession planning deserves urgent attention. The reality is that not every child of a farmer is going to aspire to take over the business from their parents.
Some kids aspire to be doctors, engineers, accountants, or agricultural economists working for corporate South Africa, open their own businesses or work abroad. So, what do farmers do in this instance? Well, they have a few options. They can sell to their family members or neighbours upon retirement. Or they can bring in their workers into the business through joint ventures or workers trusts with the aim of passing on full control of the business at a certain point in time. Financial institutions and law companies can help farmers to plan, structure, finance and execute on this. The outcome of these strategies is that food and job security are then not threatened which bodes well for the country’s requirements especially now given the economic growth and unemployment challenges.
These are just some of the issues that our farmers need to contend with daily and every season. There are of course other pain points such as recurring biosecurity threats, dumping, rising interest rates, escalating production costs and logistical issues, political uncertainty, social unrests, and labour disputes that impact our farmers negatively. The reality is that smallholder farmers, up-and-coming farmers and new entrants are not spared from these challenges merely on the basis that they are new. They too (need to) battle the same challenges which then necessitates the need for government, government agencies, departments, industry bodies as well as the private sector to work together to support these players all in the effort to support food security, job creation and economic growth imperatives. Now tell me which other sector operators compare or contend with more challenges than those our farmers contend with?


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