How small-scale farmers can remain in business

Choose crops that need little input. Or crops that deliver high yield and value from a small piece of land. And try to access financing. These are some suggestions by commercial farmers on how to keep a farming business afloat

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What can Mzansi’s small-scale farmers do to keep their businesses running as the number of farmers in the country is on a steady decline?

According to a recent report by the Competition Commission, farmer numbers are not only dwindling but has seen a remarkable drop since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who remain, especially small-scale farmers, face ongoing challenges.

Leaders in the agricultural sector attribute it to various factors such as produce dumping from overseas, the increasing price of fuel and fertiliser and crime, to name a few. Food For Mzansi collected comment from commercial farmers on how their facing of these challenges could serve as advice to their remaining but struggling small-scale peers.

ALSO READ: Mzansi losing farmers in the face of adversity

Crops that need less input

Shadrack Mbele, a small commercial farmer from Lindley in the Free State, says that the price of virtually everything has skyrocketed, making it harder for farmers to continue farming. He believes that small-scale farmers in distress could invest in planting soya beans on their farms.

How small-scale farmers can remain in business: Shadrack Mbele (52) from Lindley in the Free State was a teacher by profession he always had an aptitude for business event though he is a teacher by profession he always pursued business ventures that have led to his success today. Photo: Supplied/ Food For Mzansi
Shadrack Mbele from Lindley in the Free State. Photo: Supplied/ Food For Mzansi

“For a tonne of maize fertiliser last year, we were paying R6 500 to R7 000 but now it has gone up to between R12 000 and R13 000. That has made it very difficult for one to continue planting.

“You also talk of diesel. Last year when we planted, diesel was selling at R13,85 per litre. Now it has gone beyond R16 per litre. The input costs have also dramatically gone up, so I think the best route for small-scale farmers to take, is to plant soya because soya will need the minimum fertiliser,” he says.

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Mbele believes that if a small-scale farmer could plant 100kg of soya beans per hectare on their farm, they could make a substantial profit when selling them.

“Soya is selling for between R7 000 and R8 000 a tonne and you can produce up to 1.5 to 2 tonnes per hectare. Then you can make money.”

He warns, however, that farmers will still have to pay for diesel, chemicals and other inputs, all of which have dramatically increased in price.

“Everything has gone up and as I see it, it’s only the biggest farmers who will survive. When I am talking about the bigger farmer, it is the farmer who is planting 10 000 hectares and more. I’ve said this before: Because of the production inputs, we are being taken away from the business,” Mbele states sadly.

Access to financing

He further believes that there’s no surviving without financing by larger agribusinesses or banks.

“I am planning my production but looking at the quotations, I realise that I am in way over my head. For a hectare, we are expected to spend at least R4 000 on fertiliser. I haven’t spent on diesel, chemicals or the mechanisation that is going to be used.

“Prices have gone abnormally high and smallholder farmers are not going to survive this year unless they are financed like myself. VKB will finance me, but I am going to struggle to pay that money. I can feel that this is totally unaffordable for anyone,” he says.

Plant to sustain cattle

Another suggestion by Mbele is for small-scale farmers to plant feed for their cattle instead of crops that will require high inputs, and to specialise in cattle farming.  

“I would advise them to plant for their cattle. If you plant cash crops, you are not going to make money because of the prices of production inputs. As I am talking, I’m sitting with analyses that I got from different fertiliser companies and chemical companies. I can tell you that the prices are high. And the fertiliser companies and chemical companies are saying that these prices are only for September; they may even rise in October.

“I seriously think this needs the intervention of government because we are being put away from business. By whom, we don’t know.”

Get high yield from a small area

Dough Osler, a commercial farmer from Fouriesburg in the Free State, believes that small-scale farmers could look into vegetable production.

How small-scale farmers can survive: Doug Osler is a commercial farmer from Fouriesburg in the Free State. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Doug Osler, a commercial farmer from Fouriesburg in the Free State. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“We do dry sugar beans and it is quite labour-intensive to pull them, plus to harvest them. You would need a harvester but that too is expensive and that’s something you need to pay for. So, it’s difficult to answer but my immediate thought was that the small-scale farmer would look at something that is quite high in value. Something like vegetable production comes to mind, where in a small area you could increase the return.”

Osler explains that vegetables grow quickly, depending on what vegetables the farmer grows. They also need very little infrastructure. However, farmers need to ensure that they have enough water because vegetables need water to grow.

Choose your crops carefully

Since Osler is based in the eastern Free State and the province is known for its harsh winters, he suggests that small-scale farmers there plant cabbage. “Cabbage is able to grow through winter even though it grows at a slower pace,” he says. Another suggestion is spinach, carrots, onions and peppers.

“In this area we are spoilt for choice in terms of what we can grow. I think quite a lot of vegetables grow quite well in our conditions, especially in summer where we get good heat and generally good rains. The rains are not always guaranteed, and we do get hail, so that’s the type of vegetable you can grow here,” he suggests.  

ALSO READ: Covid-19: Only 13% of small-scale farmers survived

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