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Farmers contribute far more than the food they produce

June 2020

Jenny Mathews, Pula Imvula
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Good farmers produce an abundance of healthy food and many other valuable goods too. Farmers take care of the soil, they conserve water resources and wildlife and they’re the caretakers of mother nature.

Farmers play a significant role in community life. I’ve travelled widely and have met many farmers since I have been involved with Grain SA Farmer Development. One thing that has made a lasting impression on me is how amazing it is that most farmers are involved in their local community in one way or another, giving back, uplifting, helping … and generally making a difference to the lives and well-being of others.

No man is an island – and no one must tell me that farmers are in business for themselves alone. Our farmers’ community contributions have ranged from building churches and schools, to maintaining community cattle kraals and watering points, supporting soccer clubs and one farmer in the Eastern Free State was even running a boxing club to give local youth something to look forward to on weekends. Farmers play an important civic role in their communities.

To be a custodian means to be a caretaker. The first place that a farmer makes a difference is on the land. Farmers have a responsibility to use the natural resources at their disposal, sustainably and wisely. To use anything in a sustainable manner implies that the activity on the land will be able to be continued from one generation to the next. For example, it would be short-sighted, greedy and unreasonable to suck the lifeblood out of the soil without putting back. This means caring for the soils so they will be able to keep producing food for many years to come.

No good farmer will plant crop after crop without doing soil sampling and applying fertilisers, planting cover crops or practising crop rotation to improve the health of the soils. True farmers care about the land for today and tomorrow. They are not only businessmen today, but they are the visionaries of tomorrow. We are stewards of the land and we should be finding ways to make other members of the community, in particular the youth who will be the stewards in future, more environmentally aware.

Farmers provide food, fibre and fuel to the marketplace; but they also provide jobs for farm and seasonal workers who in turn spend their money and stimulate local economies. 

I believe we need to see even more local farming activities become viable again. By this I mean that everyone who has access to land can become productive and grow food for their families and sell their excess profitably. We should definitely all be growing seasonal vegetables for our households. It is sad that profit margins have been squeezed so tight in some agricultural value chains that many farmers say it’s not worth their while.

Some say they buy a litre of milk more cheaply than it costs them to keep a cow healthy, feed her and then milk her every day. It’s also hard to believe that for too long it has been more cost effective to buy imported chicken more cheaply than it could be raised here at home. If that chicken was grown here, the feed would be bought from our farmers and the jobs created would be given to our people. The poultry industry together with support from Grain SA, has been lobbying on this matter for long now and we are hopeful that some changes will be made in this regard very soon. 

Local produce stimulates the local economy.

We need to build vibrant rural communities and agricultural activities must be the lifeblood. It is possible only if cheap imports don’t compete with local farmer prices. We need to see a rural South Africa filled with many more motivated farmers and we need to encourage increased access to healthy, locally produced food. Local food supplies keep the rands and cents in the local economy.

Farming is not only about huge commercial farming, it is also about making a difference to household and community nutrition. Grain SA believes the size of the farm does not matter – we help anyone who has access to land and who wants to learn more about grain farming the correct way. We aim to assist farmers to get the best yields possible off each hectare. There is no reason why a small-scale farmer can’t produce the same tons per hectare as a large-scale farmer – the processes must just be done correctly and at the right time.

An advocate is a champion, a person who speaks up and pursues what is right and good. Too many farmers accept that they are disempowered, and they have no voice. This is why it is important for every single farmer to belong to a farmer organisation like Grain SA. And then to talk to the managers within the organisation about the issues that concern them.

It is Grain SA’s job to make sure there is every opportunity for grain farmers to be successful. To do this they have to monitor the quality of inputs, watch weather systems, conduct research and development and monitor diseases and pests which could affect our crops. They also constantly speak to government about policies that they need to change or put in place. If you as the farmer do not discuss your issues with the representatives, how must they know what to address on your behalf? I wonder why more farmers are not complaining more loudly and ‘advocating’ for a healthier, viable local poultry or pork industry? Ask for what you want. When things aren’t right, get involved in the processes that could make them right. You have to be a part of the solution and make sure farming becomes a vibrant sector that improves rural livelihoods.

John Donne said, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…’ We are all interconnected and have a responsibility to our communities. As farmers we are called to play an important role as food producers – now more than ever. With the shattering onset of the dreaded pandemic Covid-19 or coronavirus, it has become clear how important our work is as producers of life sustaining food on home soils. Farmers, we need to advocate for a better local food production economy that ensures it is profitable for us to grow more food and participate in the many agricultural value chains. At the same time it is not good enough to say South Africa produces enough food for all its people (which it does) – we have to speak up and demand that solutions be found to ensure that food is accessible and affordable to all, including the poorest of the poor. The farmer is one, but those who eat the fruits of his labour are many.

Publication: June 2020

Section: Pula/Imvula