Agricultural productivity: Building skills at grassroots — Part Four…who are the farmers?

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IN this series of articles on science and agricultural productivity, we have interrogated several dimensions of productivity enablers, including the human factor.
The general argument says it requires organised and committed human beings with the required skills mix to successfully implement a programme such as agricultural production.
Farmers are like a football team, they require expert coaching.
Who are the farmers?
Who are the ‘coaches’, the technical support teams?
Here we explore these two issues.
We have looked at the newly resettled farmers, a large number of whom ‘graduated’ from the small-scale communal sector.
These are ‘battle-hardened’ troops who have been conducting mostly subsistence agriculture under very difficult conditions consisting of poor soils and erratic rainfall patterns.
While their skills base is relatively low, they have the advantage of being full-time farmers born and brought up under small-scale farming conditions.
The second group of farmers are those occupying relatively large-scale pieces of land under the A2 resettlement model.
They number in excess of 40 000 and their farms range from as small as 20ha up to 200-300ha or so.
While some have ‘graduated’ from the small-scale sector, the majority are professional people holding regular jobs in the public and private sectors.
They tend to be part-time farmers who find time to visit their farms over weekends.
The majority have limited agricultural knowledge and experience and largely lack practical skills relevant to large-scale agriculture.
The majority of newly resettled famers (since about 2000) are dedicated well-meaning patriotic citizens.
The new farmers are participating in the recovery of land lost to white colonisers led by Cecil John Rhodes.
The land occupations, through the resettlement programme, are a practical manifestation of physical repossession by the legitimate owners, the indigenous black population.
The critical next phase was mobilisation of resources, both human and financial, for the effective utilisation of the recovered asset (the land).
The decline in productivity after the land reform was an inevitable phase in the development of post land reform agriculture.
A parallel example in nature is when organisms are first introduced to a new unfamiliar environment.
They take time to adjust.
The adjustment period is referred to as the lag phase.
The length of the lag phase varies with the severity of the disruption of the previous stable environment.
In our case, the near wholesale removal of white farmers meant that production was severely reduced or shut off completely across the majority of previously white-owned farms.
Little seems to happen during this phase, but the organisms will be mobilising resources such as enzymes to digest the new forms of food available.
In the same vein, the new farmers and Government have been adjusting to the new agricultural environment.
New policies were developed to breathe life into the system.
One such policy was the Agricultural Support Performance Enhancement Fund (ASPEF) which funded farmers through bank loans provided by Government through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
The ASPEF programme significantly boosted farm productivity among newly resettled large scale A2 model farmers.
It was discontinued as sanctions and financial challenges in the economy led to the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar.
The economic sanctions were imposed to prevent the blacks from re-organising and eventually accelerating productivity to take it into the next development phase that is termed the exponential phase.
All efforts are now focussed on moving agriculture out of the lag phase, past the acceleration phase and into a sustainable exponential phase.
The ingredients for boosting agricultural productivity are both material and human.
Material requirements include farming inputs, equipment and infrastructure.
The Command Agriculture Programme seeks to address the challenges farmers face in accessing inputs.
It is a brilliant idea where Government and players in the private sector have joined hands to improve farmer access to inputs and equipment.
The private sector provides the funding while Government guarantees the input and equipment loans.
The loans are repaid through stop order arrangements when farmers market their produce.
For the system to be sustainable, farmers must produce maximally and market through approved channels to avoid side marketing.
So, the question of yield levels per unit of land is a critical component of the whole system.
For maize, it is estimated that a yield of five metric tonnes per hectare is more than adequate to meet input costs and leave the farmer with enough money to meet family budgetary needs. For soya bean, a yield of three tonnes per hectare is indicated.
Where the farmer has acquired equipment, either for mechanising production or for irrigation, the loan obligation is even higher.
Costs of irrigation in terms of water payments to Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) and electricity to Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) must also be met by proceeds from sale of farm produce.
The second ingredient for agricultural productivity is the human factor.
We have explored various dimensions of this aspect in previous episodes of this discussion.
We have highlighted that the majority of new large-scale A2 model farmers have limited skills and experience.
Many of them are professionals holding full time jobs in Government and the private sector.
Their inevitable ‘remote control’ or what others call ‘cell phone farming’ approach does not make for effective supervision.
This sector, therefore, requires a strong professional extension support service.
There are three sources for this service: Government, agricultural colleges and universities as well as private sector extension agents.
The primary responsibility lies with the Government’s Agricultural and Technical Extension Department (AGRITEX) which is represented all the way down to ward level.
The department requires urgent capacitation in terms of training on new technologies and scales of operation, transport and logistics to be able to effectively service both smallholder and large-scale farmers.
University departments of agriculture and agricultural colleges have resident academic expertise and their employment contracts define three areas of activity for which performance is assessed — teaching, research and outreach.
It is the outreach aspect which requires the academics to avail their expertise to the agricultural sector, including farmers. Unfortunately this extension function has not been formalised and academics interact with farmers on a voluntary basis.
Given the dire need for farmer technical support and advisory services, Government should, in consultation with academic institutions, craft policy guidelines that require these tertiary institutions to actively and formally provide technical support to the agricultural sectors in their provinces.
That will be in support of the devolution agenda stipulated in our Constitution.
It may be useful to point out that in the US, staff of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are appointed as adjunct professors in universities where they work closely with academic faculties in research and student supervision. AGRITEX and university departments must work together to provide technical support to farmers on a sustained basis.
This requires crafting new synergies and provision of requisite funding.
The private sector extension support to farmers is closely tied to the marketing of their agricultural inputs and may not necessarily be available to all farmers at all times as is the case with AGRITEX.
All the same, it is a critical component of the extension services available to farmers.
The cry is for a better holistic co-ordination of farmer support services.
In the next episode of this discussion we shall explore strategies that can be used to strengthen the capacity of academic institutions to contribute to a vibrant and sustainable agricultural sector that can drive Zimbabwe’s vision of a middle-income economy by 2030.

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