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Sun Dec 11 04:12:30 SAST 2016

Farms are dying

Graeme Hosken | 2014-08-01 00:06:28.0
Farm. File photo.
Image by: PAULO WHITAKER / REUTERS

Rural areas are in a "death spiral", with thousands of farmers abandoning their land.

Of the 276 000 farming units in Gauteng, including large-scale and small intensive farming units, 70% lie unused as farms - most standing idle or being used as scrapyards and second-hand car dealerships.

Emerging farmers are among the most squeezed, with hundreds quitting, and claiming that the government has "abandoned" them, with no skills and little access to markets.

The revelations come at a time when Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti has published controversial proposals requiring commercial farmers to hand over half their land to farmworkers.

Agri-Gauteng CEO Derrick Hanekom said Gauteng was in big trouble with abandoned land.

"Land carryover from old to new owners was done haphazardly... land was given to communities who are not farmers and who, because of a lack of skills, are unable to farm.

"We signed the Rural Social Compact Plan [with the Gauteng agriculture and rural development department] to stem the problem and uplift Gauteng's huge peri-urban area, the third-biggest in the country.

"We are desperately trying to organise agriculture, with a big focus on micro-farmers who, if properly assisted, can produce large yields.

"The government doesn't have the skills to do capacity development in the farming sector."

President of the African Farmers Association of SA Mike Mlengana slammed the government.

"Farms were and are viewed as weekend party destinations. The consequence is that farms that have the potential to produce vitally needed food are neglected.

"The prevalence of abandonment is unbelievable, with some areas recording 100% abandonment.

"We have farms that were highly active but have been stripped bare and are now useless," Mlengana said.

A lack of money was one of the reasons emerging farmers walked off their land, he said.

"Many don't have money to farm or buy feed, seeds, fertilisers or water. In KwaZulu-Natal, farmers rely on neighbours to supply them with water because they can't afford boreholes or dams. Farms were meant to come with capitalisation and support, but didn't.

"Primary agriculture is capital-dependent . the consequence of non-capitalisation is destruction."

For Mlengana, the government's poor farmer selection criteria set emerging farmers up for failure.

"There were no proper checks and balances to see who really had farming knowledge.

"Many people lied when applying for farms, renting sheep for when inspectors came to see if they had livestock.

"The result was many farms were given to people who had no knowledge of farming."

Mlengana said many emerging farmers were sabotaged through the provision of often dilapidated and outdated equipment that was too expensive to repair.

"They weren't provided with sheds or silos to store produce or helped with the selling of produce.

"At a national level the government is interested, but regionally there is no capacity to implement policies.

"The consequence of the destruction of South Africa's farms is a direct threat to food security."

Professor Johan Willemse of the University of the Free State agricultural economics department said the government's agricultural policies needed urgent revising.

"They are plunging the country's rural towns into a death spiral with farms collapsing.

"There are no proper support structures. If there's a drought there is no assistance."

He said the implication of farm expansion and mechanisation was the collapse of rural towns, whose residents were heavily reliant on farms for jobs.

"While most countries are making farms more productive to feed their cities, this is not even a debate here.

"To survive we must rethink our agricultural policies. It is not about black or white, it is about feeding 50million people."

Boeta du Toit, Agri-North West's CEO, said that since 2000, the number of farmers in the province had decreased from 65000 to 34000.

"Though production has increased through better technology on larger farms, those who leave don't do so out of free will. When they go they go for good.

"Recent droughts have been incredibly difficult on farmers unable to repay debts.

"In the 2012-2013 financial year, nearly 15% of farms were abandoned."

Already South Africa imports half of its wheat requirement.

Willemse said urgent steps needed to be taken to stop people abandoning farms.

Despite repeated requests for comment, neither the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries nor Rural Development departments responded.

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