Farmers are irreplaceable, but face insurmountable challenges
When we each enjoy our plate of food, it might be a good thing to remember where it comes from.
Commercial farmers are one of South Africa’s greatest assets. But they face an array of problems. Photo for illustration: iStock
Being able to eat is essential for every human being, but is it not something that can simply be taken for granted?
Globally, there are severe food shortages in several countries. Food security is not only about the production of food, but also about its distribution and affordability.
The safety of food is an important aspect that must also be taken into account.
The food value chain contains a large variety of role players who each make a specific contribution to help ensure food can be available.
The centre of this value chain is the primary commercial farmers who must manage a variety of aspects to reach sustainable production. The other important role players are consumers.
If there is no market for the products, no farmer would be able to stay in production. The other role players in the value chain, whether on the input side or the processing and distribution side, have an equally important role to play.
These role players, in the process of producing and distributing food, must each make a profit.
This means that when a consumer pays, for example, R22 for a head of cabbage at his vegetable shop, it is nowhere near what the farmer will get for it.
The farmer may only get R8. In this value chain, the farmer is the only player who is a price taker on the input and output sides.
The greatest degree of risk in the creation of products the consumer can enjoy resides with the farmer.
With any commodity farmed, there is a certain period from the time the production process began until the product leaves the farm. In many cases, the farmer only has one opportunity a year to deliver products.
This is strongly linked to the seasons and many risks must be overcome, such as drought, hail, plant and animal diseases, wildfires, etc.
Theft of products has risen out of proportion with the high unemployment in South Africa, and the reality is that in many cases the SA Police Service is unable to address these crimes.
Several reasons can be given as to why farmers and other residents on farms, when compared to other groups in the country, reflect the highest rate of attack and murder.
Agriculture is, indeed, one of the most dangerous professions in the country.
The failing infrastructure, with roads which are crumbling, railway lines which are no longer a transport option, and the condition of the ports means it has become an almost impossible task for farmers to get their products to market cost-effectively.
On the input cost side, the prices have risen disproportionately and it is becoming impossible for many to continue farming profitably.
Add to that, the damage experienced from load shedding.
For irrigation farmers, there is an immediate loss of yield as soon as a watering cycle cannot be completed completely and on time.
Farmers who deliver products that are subject to the cold chain are at risk of losing their entire production due to poor quality or the spoilage of their products.
With the price of diesel, it is not cost-effective to try to bridge these interruptions with an alternative energy supply. Constantly raising minimum wages also eat into possible profit.
Technology and mechanisation are considerations for farmers calculating the most effective way to manage the production process.
The unhealthy policy environment created by the government is another issue, for instance, expropriation without compensation can probably be the most short-sighted policy direction of all to create uncertainty.
Capital is quite skittish about uncertainty and it can in no way be expected that large-scale investments will be made in our country as long as this uncertainty is the government’s norm.
Farmers’ product prices are determined by the markets and even by international markets. To be able to farm profitably these days, the latest research and technology must be used economically.
The science of agriculture is something that cannot just be picked up and applied. The experience gained through years of experience, continuous study and lessons learned from mistakes made, which have been passed down from generation to generation, mean family farms are positioned to continue to successfully produce food.
Given all these variables, it is they who can make the necessary adjustments to keep producing food for the nation.
When we each enjoy our plate of food, whatever is on the table, it might be a good thing to remember where it comes from.
Then, to perhaps realise what the food producers have to go through to sustainably continue to produce, given all the risks.
With about 68% of our country’s inhabitants being urbanised, one realises the greatest asset South Africa possesses is, without a doubt, its commercial farmers who are in production and deliver food to the markets.
Then, everyone should look with different eyes at the signs along the roads that say: Eaten today – thank the farmer and the farm worker.
– Van Zyl is general manager of farmers’ organisation TLU-SA