East Cape farmers unite in face of mounting challenges

(Port Alfred) – Political instability and the ongoing effects of the crippling three-year drought are among the biggest challenges facing Eastern Cape farmers but, despite the problems, farming remains the lifeblood of South Africa’s developing economy.

GOOD NEWS: Agri Eastern Cape president Doug Stern (left) and television journalist Freek Robinson were among the keynote speakers on the first day of the Agri EC annual congress in Port Alfred on Thursday.

Speaking in Port Alfred at the opening of Agri EC’s annual two-day congress on Thursday (August 3), president Doug Stern said it was time for farmers to respond positively to the serious challenges facing the agricultural sector and tackle issues such as land reform and food security head on.

“Farming remains the lifeblood of our developing economy. We are open for business and stand for growth and prosperity,” Stern told delegates.

Stern said political instability had created insecurity in the provincial agricultural sector but that farmers needed to persevere and “raise their game” by employing sustainable farming and business practices and embracing technology.

Keynote speaker and television journalist Freek Robinson reminded farmers that they were not only on the frontline of building the economy, but also, more importantly, of improving race relations.

Highlighting recent racial conflicts involving farmers in Coligny and Parys, Robinson said the agricultural sector was uniquely placed to play a key societal role beyond food production.

“Farmers can make a great difference, on the human level, by taking positive action to change the negative sentiments around farmers. You are champions of agriculture and champions of our human dignity and progress as human beings,” he said.

Absa economist Wessel Lemmer said agriculture remained a solid investment, despite the country entering a technical recession. He said farmers were doing a remarkable job in producing some of the cheapest food worldwide and advised them to focus on technology and biosecurity to increase productivity. “Despite the challenges, agriculture still performs in comparison to other sectors.”

However, the head of Agri SA’s development council, Ernest Pringle, cautioned delegates about the realities of land reform and said a more proactive and aggressive approach, including legal challenges at national level, was needed.

“Figures show that more land is transferred through the market than through government mechanisms. The willing buyer-willing seller principle is working for land reform,” Pringle said. “But until there is genuine dialogue between the government and organised agriculture, land reform will not happen.”

Wrapping up the Thursday’s proceedings, climate researcher Peter Johnston said the Eastern Cape and Limpopo ranked highest on the overall vulnerability index of agriculture to climate change.

“Climate change is just one of the factors of concern in agriculture, alongside overpopulation, poverty, the degradation of natural resources, water sources and other factors,” said Johnston.

Farmers would have to adapt by engaging in conservation and precision farming, diversification of products, soil moisture management, changing irrigation methods and exploring new technologies, he said.

On Friday (August 4), wrapping the two-day event, Agri SA president Johannes Möller told farmers that land reform in South Africa should be viewed as an economic issue rather than an ideological one – a move he said would lead to improved dialogue and the creation of sound business opportunities.

Möller said the way forward for successful land reform could only be “in partnership”.

“Our role has traditionally been to formulate and communicate policy but we must also help to implement it, and not just leave it to government to do. We must facilitate that which we want done ourselves,” said Möller.

This included developing training programmes for beneficiaries, a new financing model and the possible setting up of a risk assessment desk – which assessed all political, global, environmental and other threats to agriculture – in cooperation with government.

He said the agricultural sector contributed 2.6% of the GDP, which was closer to 30% with the inclusion of its value chain and related food processing industries.

“South Africa’s current economic model isn’t working. We are in dire need of a new economic model that everybody in the government and the private sector can underwrite and which is both market-driven and socially responsible.”

He said the agricultural sector had a role to play in contributing to employment opportunities and creating food security and to do so in a “socially responsible manner for all our people in South Africa”.