Being an expert in the agricultural sector as an economist didn’t prepare Ikageng Maluleke for what she would find when actually meeting farmers on their home ground. After recently travelling extensively to visit 20 South African farmers, she was inspired to write this love letter to the unsung heroes of Mzansi.
Being a farmer in South Africa has to be one of the hardest professions to be in. The challenges farmers go through are overwhelming, to say the least.
The host of problems include farm safety, infrastructure, access to markets, financial constraints perpetuated by drought conditions, uncertainty in policy direction and a teetering economy. And that is to name but a few.
I recently had the privilege to travel around the country and visit 20 black grain farmers in five provinces: Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, North West and Free State. Given my background of being an agricultural economist in the grain sector, I work with farmers daily, but I am based in the city in an office set-up. Our means of communication is through the phone or email. We usually visit regions, but typically meet in a central location, usually in a town of that region.
My exposure to farm life is rather limited and the farms I have visited in the past were more commercial and well developed. We visited different sized farming operations from smallholder to New Era commercial.
With the harvest period upon us, things have been rather good for most summer- grain producers, with average to above-average yields in most areas. Oilseeds are already harvested while maize is still being harvested in the Western and Eastern Free State.
During our journey I was amazed at the state of the road infrastructure – if there was any – to reach some of these farmers. How do they even reach the market or how do inputs reach their farms? But somehow they make do. The majority of these areas do not have running water or electricity.
Despite all these apparent challenges when you get to the farm, you are always welcomed with a big, warm smile. Within these communities is a social fabric and a sense of warmth like nowhere else I have been. Although each community has its social ills, the presence of a farmer always makes a difference, from job creation to fostering children and even feeding orphaned or elderly neighbours.
Among all the farmers that we met, I should just acknowledge the importance of mentorship and partnerships with input suppliers. The knowledge transfer, friendship, trust and dedication is seen through the improvement of each farming operation.
Pride in small-scale farmers’ eyes
I must say, the subsistence and smallholder farmers captured my heart. They farm on 1 to 15 hectares of land. With the help of Grain SA, these farmers can produce commercial yields on their small piece of land, allowing them to feed their families and their animals and to sell the surplus to their neighbours or even mills close by. The pride in their eyes when they talk about their farming operations and when they show off their fields or great-looking harvest stored in cob cages is beyond amazing.
Most of them work the land using hand tools and thresh using communal threshing machines that belong to their study groups. This is truly a labour of love. I witnessed first-hand the daily struggles that these farmers face. From a farmer with worry in his eyes because his cow is struggling to calve, to a farmer who has to fetch water from over a kilometre away from her home, but still maintains a vegetable garden. The amazing thing is that they remain so resilient and hopeful regardless of their circumstance.
‘What they all had in common was the love they had for land. Some of us even call it dirt, but to them it is potential.’
Moving on to potential commercial and commercial farmers: I have one word to describe this category and that is ‘impressive’.
Most of these farms have been taken over by the younger generation from their parents. It is remarkable to see young people so passionate about agriculture and doing well. The use of technology, the level of innovation and new techniques of doing things is astonishing. Although there are many challenges, these young people are committed to the cause for the long haul.
If you ever have an opportunity to visit with a farmer, the conversation will flow easily if you ask about either the weather, their animals, machinery or their family. Throughout all our visits, I met the most humble human beings. What they all had in common was the love they had for land. Some of us even call it dirt, but to them it is potential.
It does not matter their age, but the heart of a farmer remains the same. In their heart lies the desire to bring life to the soil and harvest that life to provide for others. They are tough, true, and determined.
Reflecting on this journey, I salute these unsung heroes who contribute to our country’s food security despite the odds. I learnt a lot about grain production and the challenges. This has given me a new perspective on how I can cater to the needs of a farmer.