We farmed cattle and sheep part-time on a family farm for more than five years from about 1986 to 1991.   It became apparent even then that the days of the private farmer were  rapidly coming to an end.   I heard on Cape Talk yesterday that about 2 million jobs had been lost in the agricultural sector over the last few years.   It was interesting to read an article first published in the Cape Times yesterday where the writer alerts us to the global trends.   He correctly points out that ‘if youngsters aren’t interested in agriculture, where is the next generation of farmers and researchers to come from, not to speak of bountiful and affordable food?’

Roelof Bezuidenhout is a livestock farmer and freelance journalist and his article Grey days ahead for farming needs to be read in full.

Extracts from the article

A FIELD FOR THE AGED: The average age of farmers and farmworkers, even in First World countries, is creeping towards 60, and young people no longer see farming as a rewarding career says the writer.

While mature farmers have the experience and are less likely to make financial mistakes, young farmers are the potential entrepreneurs and producers.   When farmers are older than the general population, rural communities as well as taxpayers can expect trouble as small towns cannot cope with even more aging, unproductive citizens.   Already, unemployment rates in these areas are closer to 90 percent than to the official 25 percent.

Statistics are often out of date, but they suggest that the average age of commercial farmers and farmworkers even in First World countries such as the US and Australia is creeping towards 60 – when company executives prepare to retire.

While some districts and some branches of farming, such as game ranching, are attracting younger people (perhaps because jobs in other sectors have become so scarce) generally fewer and fewer fresh faces are seen at farmers’ meetings and rural sports clubs and churches.   The emerging farming sector is also older than it could be, with members of mentorship projects often around 50 years of age and communal farmers in the pension bracket.

While agricultural faculties annually accept hundreds of students, many of them study agriculture not out of choice but because they do not qualify for courses such as medicine or law.   At universities servicing the former homelands, most students have never even been on a commercial farm, let alone worked on one.   This does not auger well for the future of essential support programmes run by extension officers and advisers.

Good farmers are born, rather than made.   Unfortunately, we are now losing even those born farmers to other sectors – or to the bottomless pit of unemployment.   Naturally for young, energetic people to go farming they need to see it as an interesting, rewarding career.

The profitability of farming is best left to market forces, but the government can help bring more stability to the sector by guaranteeing land ownership and not doing anything that undermines land values, which are the pillars of the rural economy.   Destroy farm values and the pack of cards collapses.

But the core of the problem is that the value of a thriving family-farm sector has been largely ignored in the big land debate, possibly because the South African family farm has simply been taken for granted – as if it has always been there and will continue to feed the nation and keep the rural economy going.

Things are changing out there, unnoticed by urbanites.   Fifty years ago, when South Africa still had 150 000 commercial farmers, almost every urbanite personally knew a farmer – if they did not actually have an uncle or grandfather in the farming business.

Now, with fewer than 40 000 commercial farmers remaining – and their numbers still shrinking – city folk have all but lost touch with what is happening down on the ranch.

In South Africa, corporate farming businesses now own 5 percent of irrigated farms and produce 30 percent of the national crop while more than one million small-scale farmers produce only 5 percent.   Family owned farms produce the remaining 65 percent.

Despite the official focus on establishing new small-scale farmers in South Africa, the table is set for an increase in big company farms that can churn out food in factory-like precision at lower costs per unit and can ride the boom-and-bust cycles that govern farming profits.

Big companies are better equipped to manage and train their labour force.   More and more, landowners are in future likely to lease, rather than sell, their land to bigger operators or to farm on contract, especially if land reform policies succeed in forcing down farm values.   This could reduce the number of good farms coming on to the market to the extent that land values could eventually go the other way – and skyrocket.

On the other hand, many families found that trying to maintain a farm out of sheer sentiment is not an option.   For older farmers, in particular, it is hard to let go.   Ingrid Muenstermann, of Humanities and Social Sciences, Charles Sturt University, sums it up well by asking if the Australian family farm, for the older generation, is too bad to stay on or too good to leave.   But she found that the young generation does not believe that family farming offers a secure livelihood or future.

Dotted across South Africa, deserted farm homesteads and workers’ cottages bear witness to the changing socio-economic rural landscape.   Saving the family farm in its present form will be difficult if farmers are not properly trained in all aspects of farming, including the latest technology – and get at least some support from the taxpayer.

That will not necessarily mean more jobs.   New techniques bring greater production per unit, but fewer hands are needed to generate the goods.   For example, even in South Africa, genetically modified crops have led to higher yields, but the advent of mammoth, computerised tractors and bigger implements has already put thousands of tractor drivers out of work.