Agricultural productivity: Building skills at grassroots — Part Three…plugging the leaks at farm level

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READERS of this column will now appreciate that low farm productivity must be traced to the playground – the farm.
And, on the farm, we need to interrogate the actual players.
We have seen that Zimbabwean professionals in various trades became land owners as a result of the Land Reform Programme which availed land to previously marginalised blacks.
They became stakeholders by acquiring land primarily for agricultural production.
We have noted that the majority of resettled new farmers have little or no experience in large-scale commercial operations. The new farmers need to mobilise a whole new set of skills to successfully run their farms.
They must recruit farm workers skilled in various operations at farm level.
Eighteen years after the commencement of the Land Reform Programme the new farmers are struggling to consolidate their operations to make them economically viable.
Skills are at the centre of the productivity challenges facing these new farmers.
So we shall interrogate the operators of various pieces of equipment, their supervisors and other general workers since activities of this group impact directly on farm productivity once equipment and inputs have been delivered as has been the case under Command Agriculture.
There is an adage: “Mari haiirimi; chinorima vanhu,” which roughly translates to: ‘Money alone cannot achieve anything but for the actions of people on the ground.’
The above saying is ascribed to well-known Zimbabwean sociologist, Professor Claude Gumbucha Mararike, who has co-published with the late Dr Vimbai Gukwe Chivaura, the book on The Human Factor Approach to Development.
To understand the dynamics of farm productivity, we must interrogate the farm actors, the workers and their capacity to successfully carry out the different critical farm operations.
The question we must ask is: What are the farm workers’ skills and competencies?
What is their motivation?
We shall only look at the operational details, leaving other issues to human resources experts.
Who are the farm workers?
They range from the farm manager, supervisors, foremen, tractor drivers and other equipment operators, irrigators, herdsmen, farm clerks, farm guards and general hands.
Let us look at some scenarios on a typical resettled farm.
The rains have come.
It is time for land preparation.
The tractor driver is also the equipment operator.
He must know how to set the plough and make the necessary adjustments for each operation where the plough is used.
The principle that: ‘Never plough down the slope’ applies even to trailer work within arable lands as water will flow down the tracks formed and cause erosion.
Who teaches all these principles about land preparation to minimise erosion?
How schooled is our driver on the relationship between slope and direction of tillage operations?
My experience with several ‘experienced’ tractor operators has demonstrated that they can change gears but they have little appreciation of the purpose of various operations and the consequences of tillage that does not follow contours.
In a wheat field, it is important that the soil be tilled to a depth of 15-20 cm.
This will provide a rooting and water storage medium.
If land preparation consists of scratching the surface to a depth of only a few centimetres, wheat may germinate but will grow poorly as both root development and water infiltration will be poor.
On sloping lands, the irrigation water quickly runs down the slope, resulting in poor crop establishment and low yields.
So the detail and the science are in the land preparation procedures.
The farmer is often away and, if present, may be of little use as a reference point given his or her inexperience.
Inexperienced tractor operators, tilling sloping fields, may fail to plough deep in order to improve infiltration, water storage and root development.
Sometimes, the farmer is around but also fails to instruct the operator to deep plough.
On sloping lands, contour ridges must be constructed to minimise water run-off.
Sadly, few if any contour ridges are being constructed.
The result is soil erosion and poor crop growth due to shallow rooting depth and water runoff.
All the above factors lead to low crop yields.
Planters and fertiliser spreaders need to be calibrated so that they deliver the correct amount of inputs.
Where do they train drivers how to do it?
If your operator did not learn it from a previous white farm owner, from college or from his father, he may be unable to do a proper job.
Only the older farmworkers can be expected to have been taught how to carry out such operations by former employers.
Those farmworkers who are below 35 years of age, or younger, in 2018 would have been too young to be working at the start of the land reform programme.
So, the majority of farmworkers 35 years and below have no experience of holding a regular job, neither can they be expected to possess any useful skills, except a few.
They are familiar with what we call piece jobs or ‘maricho’. Apart from their lack of experience and work ethic, they have a general negative attitude towards working for the black resettled farmers.
They may not be expected to put their best shoulder to the wheel to boost farm productivity.
We are saying part of the low productivity challenges on resettled farms is largely a consequence of poor skills base and poor work ethic of farmworkers who remained in the farm compounds and have been ‘inherited’ by the new farmers.
The managers, supervisors and other workers must have a work ethic that aims for the highest possible target yields.
How does the resettled farmer motivate the workers to produce maximally?
He needs skills and competencies to mobilise and motivate farm labour.
For many new farmers, that is a major challenge.
Do extension agencies and tertiary institutions have capacity to support farmers?
Experience has also shown that the majority of dwellers on former white commercial farms have extensive experience with tobacco but not with other crops.
They will quickly point out: “Oh, I know from seedbed to harvesting!”
Much of the experience of workers on former white-owned commercial farms was gained under close supervision.
The workers were not trained in the science behind the various operations.
The boss kept the essential science and details close to his chest.
Many of the farm managers who worked with white commercial farmers have limited capacity to carry out extended independent operations.
Black farmers who derive some comfort from employing experienced farm managers who once worked on white commercial farms are often disappointed when the individuals fail to rise to the occasion.
This may reflect that the individuals were never put in charge as the white boss was always around and in control.
The new black bosses are also notable to provide adequate technical supervision to their seemingly experienced but often challenged old managers.
So productivity suffers.
The assumption that former managers can grow maize and wheat, let alone soya beans, can sometimes be erroneous.
So, productivity is still a challenge except where the new farm owner inherited a complete working unit (farm) with both equipment and personnel.
Much work remains to be done both at policy and operational level to raise farm productivity.

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