I think 2020 was one of the toughest years our country and our economy at large have had to endure. Not only did we lose many fellow South Africans to the Covid-19 pandemic, but our businesses, including many farming operations, have also suffered. Yet despite these challenges, we have shown great resilience.
The South African agricultural sector, in particular, has been especially resilient, proving its worth to investors as it grows, while making a contribution to key national imperatives such as job creation, poverty alleviation and addressing inequality. What other economic sectors can say the same?
But what really makes this industry so strong and resilient? I think you could start with its people. South African farmers are some of the strongest people I know. By strong I mean tough, capable and always positive, always searching for the silver lining to any difficult situation.
As we enter the new year, I remain optimistic about agriculture’s future. A recent trip to the Eastern Cape did a lot to keep me positive. There I met two young farmers, Tshilidzi “Chilli” Matshidzula and Sinelizwi Fakade, both under the age of 40!
This helps debunk the myth, at least in my head, that we’re heading for a crisis because of our fast-ageing farmers. Most statistics from various organisations seem to suggest gloomily that the average age of South Africa’s farmers is about 62. While that may be true, we must not be blind to the extraordinary young talent coming through the ranks and serving as a true beacon of hope.
Take 31-year-old Chilli, who started his career at 19 and today is one of the best dairy farmers in the country. He also made history by becoming the first black farmer to win the coveted Eastern Cape Young Farmer of the ear Award in 2016, and his conservation efforts on his farm earned him the Bathurst Agricultural Society’s famous Mangold Trophy. Today he manages two farms that milk about 2 000 cows a day, producing about 10 million litres of milk a year.
Then there is Sinelizwi, who already has some notable achievements under his belt even though he is only 29. When he headed up Grain SA’s grain farmer development programme in the Eastern Cape, he started off with a few hundred farmers. Within three years he was helping 3 500 farmers plant 3 000ha of maize. Today this young farmer, with the help of his friend, the legendary Rob Farrington, plants an impressive 1 000ha of grain on a farm that he’s already paid off.
The question we need to ask ourselves is: How do we get more of these young farmers established? When I asked Chilli and Sinelizwi, their answer was simple – people who make the decisions must just want to do it, nothing more. Find those farmers who are already making a success of their operations, and invest in them unapologetically. How else are we going to create the role models our youth so desperately needs, asks Chilli?
Which brings me to another question: where are the youngsters who have been through agricultural training? Haven’t quite a few been supported by government? So where did they all end up? I’ve always been critical of recruiting young people for farming en masse when there’s no plan on how to use them. There have been many silly campaigns to convince the youth of the virtues of farming by using ridiculous slogans like “making agriculture sexy again”.
These ideas are misplaced. After all, there is nothing sexy about mining or civil engineering, yet young people are flocking to these industries. Making agriculture sexy is not nearly as important as making it profitable! A more effective strategy would be rather to support the current crop of young people who are already farming. Make sure they stay on their farms by supporting them until they are sustainable and making money. The youth will flock to agriculture if, and only if, it becomes clear that they can make good money from it.
We also need to build greater capacity overall. For instance, all the skilled youngsters in various related fields should be utilised to help overcome the many policy, regulatory and financing obstacles that prevent people from joining mainstream agriculture and its various value chains.
If we can just get it right to support tirelessly those who have already shown true commitment and skill by creating an enabling environment for them, I have no doubt that South Africa’s agricultural sector will prosper even further, make an even greater contribution to economic growth and provide even more food for its people. And it should be made abundantly clear that the youth should never regard agriculture as inferior to other economic activities just because it doesn’t somehow seem sexy enough! – PETER MASHALA