Sowing seeds of co-operation in the countryside - Weekend Argus

27 July 2019 - Collaboration between commercial and emerging farmers is reaping rewards.

Humphry Hamilton

At first blush, it might seem that farmers are a rough bunch and, if one believed the incessant negative press, they are evil as well.

Farming is not easy, it is hard work. Oom Schalk Lourens may have been able to fall asleep under the Withaak while he surveyed the slopes of Abjaterskop, but the modern farmer has no such luxury, not even in winter. The margins in farming are tight and the farmers themselves are even tighter.

Yet, a telling instance of cooperation in the Underberg dairy and cattle farming community in the Umzimkulu River valley of KwaZulu-Natal reveals another truth about farmers that is often obscured by the fallacious stereotype many South Africans subscribe to: they are committed to making agriculture work for everyone.

In this valley, Underberg farmers, via the Underberg Farmers’ Association, have employed Wayne McNamara to assist local black farmers in their farming endeavours.

McNamara has been employed for the past five years and is slowly but surely having a positive impact on both the black farmers’ output and the relationship between them and their commercial farmer neighbours.

Although the communities that McNamara works with are numerous, two stand out as examples of what can be achieved.

The first is Umqatsheni, on the north eastern border of the Underberg commercial farming area. Umqatsheni farmers have suffered from stock theft from before present memory, but have had very limited defence against it. As most working-age residents of Umqatsheni are in the cities holding down or looking for jobs, the task of looking after the livestock is left to the grandparents and the children, who not ideal candidates for the task. Their commercial farmer neighbours have similar stock theft problems, but have worked together using a shared radio network to coordinate efforts to retrieve stolen stock. 

Having been invited to a newly formed Umqatsheni anti-stock theft association, McNamara proposed to them that they coordinate their efforts with their neighbouring commercial farmers, using the radio network. This was done; some of the radios were bought by the Umqatsheni stock-theft unit and some were donated by Himeville/Underberg Community Watch (a local commercial farmers’ disaster-management company). The results have been positive for all concerned – except the stock thieves. There is less stock theft both in Umqatsheni and on commercial farms as a result of this coordination and there is now a growing relationship of interdependence and trust between the communities.

Another success has been notched up in Kilmun, which borders the Underberg commercial farmers to the south. For a long time, there was a difficult relationship between the Kilmun community and the Underberg commercial farmers; overgrazing of the Kilmun community land led to cattle wandering on to commercial farming land, which resulted in confrontations. 

McNamara got involved. Among other things, he realised that the community’s maize yield was not what it could be, and that commercial farming expertise would make all the difference.

McNamara is now involved in assisting with everything from the provision of seed, fertilizer, lime and pesticides to soil sampling, ploughing, seeding and harvesting on numerous plots larger than half a hectare in Kilmun. Local commercial farmers are contracted whenever machinery is required.

The results are pleasing so far, with one Kilmun farmer’s one-hectare plot – which had once yielded less than half a ton of maize – yielding 3 tons in the last season.  McNamara anticipates that five tons per hectare is easily achievable. He is now finding that there is steadily less resistance to his proposals as the success is noted and talked about in the community.

As a sum, the commercial farmers now have new clients, the Kilmun community are now making more money off their land, and a relationship of interdependence and trust is developing.  Naturally, the number of incidents of wandering cattle and raised voices are becoming fewer and fewer.

And, as research by the Institute of Race Relations has highlighted, the cooperative arrangements in the Umzimkulu River valley are not unique or isolated; many other initiatives to assist small farmers have been set up around the country by individual farmers, commodity organisations, agricultural co-operatives and training associations, non-profit organisations, and large companies.

Farmers know better than anyone else what it takes to succeed in agriculture, and that a successful industry depends on collaboration.

Humphry Hamilton is a farmer and futures trader. This article was commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom.