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Farmers are in a serious business

Farming is rapidly becoming what it should be: A business that people enter from choice, not a method of survival that people endure because they cannot do anything else.

And so it needs to be treated as a business, from the smallholder all the way up to the Government. The Second Republic is in the process of converting land reform from a system of giving people “a piece of land” into a method of allocating scarce natural resources to those who are able to use them to produce the food and industrial raw materials we need, and the exports our economy must have to grow. The equity and fairness that drove the process must remain, but those farming have to use the land properly, as business people.

This has involved a change of mindset, again still as a process rather than an overnight cultural change. We are already hearing more and more people talk about their farm, rather than their “piece of land”, and the distinction is important. A farm is a productive entity that produces. It might be highly productive, it might be still in the early stages. But it is seen as a business run by someone who knows the business and as a business that must produce a decent income and standard of living for the farmer and their family.

A piece of land is just that, an area allocated to someone who can use it for weekend braais, or as something like an offer letter than can be kept locked up for insurance against unemployment or old age, or for any of a host of purposes that do not, regrettably, include any farming except perhaps a few mealies or a couple of rows of vegetables.

We have already seen the results of this switch. This last harvest has seen the majority of farming families move out of subsistence agriculture into the commercial world. It is early days yet but the change has been made and the process of creating a large rural middle class has begun. We are starting with very poor families having some money, but give it a few years and the transformation will be staggering.

The Government invested a lot of money into this changeover, buying the inputs for more than 1 million families in the communal lands and on the A1 resettlement farms, or their equivalent, and took a great deal of trouble to exclude those who were not really farmers. Simply ensuring that all who benefitted from the input schemes were physically resident on their farms, had successfully undergone training in new farming methods, and had done the extremely hard work involved in new land preparation techniques was adequate to winnow out the non-serious holders of a piece of land.

The larger scale farmers, those running the bigger businesses, usually needed support. Here the Second Republic has stepped up the ante. The pilot Command Agriculture has been transformed into the National Enhanced Agriculture Productivity Scheme, NEAPS, a more descriptive if less snappy name. This saw the Government take a step back. The scheme is run by a commercial banking unit, CBZ Agroyields, with the Government making it viable in the early stages with a full guarantee.

But this is a pure business arrangement. CBZ has shown commendable reluctance to claim its guarantees, preferring to work out repayment plans for farmers hammered by drought in the previous season, and even now willing to talk if someone staked for the last and far better season hit problems that were not their fault. But there are some who harvested their crops, perhaps, or at least spent the money but have delivered nothing, paid back nothing and seem to have vanished from the financial radar. The Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement is understandable extremely irritated.

The Second Republic launched, and funded without breaking the budget, the input schemes to trigger the major production changeover. More money will be found each year, but the Government obviously wants this, as presumably do the farmers, to increase the pool of finance available, so the real farmers can grow more and make more money. This is how the rural areas are to move from poverty to upper middle income families, by producing more.

When someone takes the money or inputs, produces nothing, or at least delivers nothing, then they are in effect stealing from the farmers who are using the schemes to the full and want to use larger and better schemes to the full year after year. The Government finance was not a rural subsidy or social payment, there is another budget line for that, but a capital injection into what everyone wants to see as eventually a huge revolving fund allowing real farmers to produce ever more.

The first reaction of the Ministry is to start getting tough. The NEAPS farmers have until the end of November to deliver or else be blacklisted. They will not only be unable to borrow on Government-backed schemes but be unable to borrow, period. No one will trust them. Most have done well and farmed properly, and they are praised and, more importantly, paid.

But the Ministry is now considering being even tougher. Those allocated farms who do not use them are already under notice that they need to be serious about farming or quit, so someone else who is serious can start farming the land properly. Now those who mess around and try to “farm” loans instead of farming properly are also being considered for the reallocation list.

This need to winnow out the non-farmers and the cheats does delay another policy, the granting of lease rights to the real farmers. But when we start enhancing security of tenure we need to ensure that those with enhanced security are the ones who are using the land. It also suggests that leases will need to be more carefully drafted, so that they fall in if a farmer stops farming or joins the outlaws. Yes, it would be right and just to give more formal and legal security of tenure to the good farmers who need this to continue capitalising their farms and taking the longer view of improving their land and building their assets. But we cannot create the possibility that land can be held without being used.

But the basic Government policy is now in place. The good farmers must be kept on the land, and that group augmented by keen youngsters now ready to enter the farming business, and be given the necessary backing, fiscal, legal and infrastructural, to grow more and more each year. The Second Republic has been backing that policy with serious money rather than talk. But this also means that those who misuse resources, or just hang onto resources without using them, need to make way for the growing numbers in the first group. We can have it both ways.

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