The past year has been particularly challenging for farmers across the board, but those in the Free State are battling more hurdles than most. Recent rainfall in the province has resulted in the expectation of a bumper crop of grains, but is this really good news?
It is, but only if you can transport those grains to various markets.
While the rain has provided much-needed water for crops, it has also contributed to the already dilapidated state of the Free State’s roads.
Gravel has been washed off some roads, while the damage to tar roads has increased, especially in the Heilbron and Ngwathe municipality districts.
“About 99% of all the rural roads in Heilbron district are in a bad state of deterioration due to years of bad or no maintenance from the department of roads and transport,” says Koot Naudé, a Free State Agriculture (FSA) regional representative. “I can even confirm that the whole Ngwathe municipality district’s roads are in a very bad state.”
The final straw for farmers
Free State farmers have been pleading for help from the government to fix the roads for years, saying that the conditions of the roads are affecting their farming businesses.
Jack Armour, commercial manager of agricultural development, natural resource and commercial activities at Free State Agriculture, has provided Food For Mzansi with a paper trail of emails sending pleas for help to the provincial government.
They feel their calls go unheeded as the provincial government squander away the funds meant to fix the roads.
The recent rains have been the final straw for farmers.
Farmers are suffering with the amount of money they have to spend on a lot of money on vehicles and implements such as broken axles, damaged tires and wheels and other breakdowns, according to Naudé.
“This is really bad news for farmers,” says agricultural economist Dr Kobus Laubscher.
Laubscher says that the high risk of damage and maintenance involved in the logistics of crop harvests are going to have an impact on the farmer’s bottom lines.
“We’re expecting a bumper crop in terms of summer crops, while the roads are in dire straits.”
“This may mean that our harvests cannot be harvested in time, which will impact exports,” he says. “My concern is that it will reflect along the value chain.”
“Food inflation might take a tick upwards because of this,” Laubscher warns.
The difficulties with transportation, along with the recent increase in the price of diesel will definitely impact the profit margins of farmers. This is bad, because farmers are paying for things that are out of their control.
“It’s high time that the government pays not just lip service to improve the roads, but to do it promptly and with a plan,” says Laubscher.
This is necessary so that farmers have the best possible, and efficient ways to transport their crops.
Farmers paying with their businesses and lives
Lives have been lost on these roads, from taxis and school busses to farmers and visitors in the area.
“Lots of accidents have happened due to bad maintenance on the roads,” Naudé says. “About a week ago a farmer paid with his life in an accident on the Heilbron/Edenville road.”
Farmers in the province are also saying that they are now finding it difficult to deliver their crops to the market, and this, in turn, is affecting their profit margins.
“Transportation of products and animal feed from and to the markets are delayed, which causes a loss of money,” says Naudé.
According to him some transport businesses refuse to let their vehicles to go on the bad Free State roads.
“For farmers who arrange their own transport, they will have to suffer higher costs and damages,” adds Laubscher.
A farmer’s perspective
Buchule Pama, farmer at Amiline (Pty) Ltd in Bothaville, travels to and from Johannesburg quite often.
“The roads are definitely a problem,” says Pama. “All the way from Johannesburg to the Free State, especially when you pass Parys.”
He says that stakeholders cannot reach his farm if they do not have a four-wheel drive vehicle.
“The bankers that try to come see the farm, they struggle to get to the farm,” he says.
This could impact his chances of getting funding. It’s not just stakeholders that need to get to the farm, it is also transport for the produce that they farm.
“The bad roads affect us greatly,” he says. “When you need to organise transport to get cattle, they cannot get to us. Especially if it is raining.”
“When we need to transport our wheat, maize or potatoes, we need to be very careful. If it’s raining we need to reschedule.”
He says that he is lucky to be relatively close to main roads that are not so damaged, but he knows of other farmers living further from main roads that are struggling much more.
“It is a very big struggle for them,” he says. “To the point where they need to organise their own transport for their produce to [get to] big co-ops, because they refuse to come out there.”
Farmers are losing interest from organisations who are interested in buying their produce, because it is not worth it for the organisations to send transport vehicles that will get damaged on the roads. Farmers are now hard pressed to organise their own transport at extra cost.
“Agriculture is for food security, for job creation, and now if the roads are making it difficult for farmers to perform their duties, then it is a huge problem,” Pama says.