The farmer’s human factor content and sustainable food production

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IN the previous episode of our discussion on the human factor challenge in agriculture, we raised issues connected to the farmer’s capacity to produce adequate food for the population.
After the land reclamation phase, two new categories of farmers have been introduced in Zimbabwe: the A1 and A2 model farmers.
The A1 farmers include a large number from the communal areas who moved into the newly freed lands as part of decongesting the crowded former African reserves. This group has had long experience of farming under difficult conditions of low rainfall and poor soils far removed from urban markets. Their resilience and experience is probably much more than many A2 farmers. They currently are credited with delivering the most grain to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) and probably other markets.
The A2 farmers include an overwhelmingly large group of urbanites, professionals who enthusiastically embraced the land reform programme to fulfil their longing for a piece of land to farm. It is A2 farmers who tend to be blamed for failing to raise agricultural productivity to levels that bring back the ‘bread basket’ status of Zimbabwe. But is this blame justified?
But if we go back to our old adage: ‘Mari hairime chinorima munhu’, we may want to find out if our expectations of A2 farmers are not a little too ambitious. Who are these A2 farmers? What is their human factor content vis-a-vis agricultural productivity on the farm? They may have more to invest but they may also lack experience and expertise especially with new crops like tobacco and soyabeans; even maize.
We know most A2 farmers are professionals with office jobs in the private and public sectors. Since leaving school they have had little involvement with practical agricultural production at farm level; not their fault. One could be right in saying they have not engaged in large-scale production of any commodity except perhaps in their group gardening projects at school. What they lack in agricultural experience cannot be made up by their enthusiasm for agriculture.
In short there is need for investing in building the human factor content of both A2 and many A1 farmers to enable these well-meaning but inexperienced land occupiers to rapidly mutate into farmers.
Farmers have experience that comes with years. Have our farmers spent sufficient years on their farms to pick ups the relevant experience? Some have pointed an accusing finger at the A2 farmers saying they have been on the land for more than 10 years; they should be able to stand on their own now.
Are we not forgetting that these have been difficult and lean years even for those with experience? In Europe and America and indeed other countries around the globe, records show that farmers receive subsidies and numerous other incentives to remain on and productively use the land. Farmers receive massive support from private and public institutions to guarantee national food security, independence and sovereignty.
We became used to seeing white farmers in shorts clutching leather bags and shuttling in and out of banks. They stayed full time on the farms. What investments did colonial pre-independence white governments make to keep the white farmers going on the farms?
Did we expect our white-collar comrades to also leave their offices to go and live on the farms full time?
Indeed we did as in the first Commercial Farm Settlement phase of 1993/94. Persons with agricultural qualifications and ZW$50 000 in a bank account were offered former ARDA farms to go and settle on and carry out the business of farming. Most importantly they were required to resign their posts in the public or private sector and to live on the farms as conditions for permission to take up the farms offered.
I guess we also expected to see these new farmers shuttle in and out of town in khaki shorts with old worn out leather bags in hand, driving old model Mercedes Benz, Land Rovers or single cab Land Cruisers. But no, the whites who did that had been on the land for decades!
Even more important, we expected the new farmers to deliver handsome tonnages to the GMB and other buyers of agricultural produce.
Were our expectations legitimate? Did our new farmers possess the human factor content to deliver on the important national mandate that we put on their shoulders?
Let us pause to analyse the situation.
Our new farmers had little or no resources; the ZW$50 000 would not take them far. They had practical agricultural experience, yes. Some were former farm managers, but they were not farmers in the sense of being business persons. They had no access to cheap funding from banks, which in fact were quite hostile to blacks encroaching on what was considered a privileged white domain — large scale commercial farming. The new farmers were in hostile territory, they still are!
I have previously made reference to a former Raffingora white farmer, Mr Graham, who told me of how he and others arrived from England as World War II English war veterans and how the white government invested to turn them into commercial farmers. He said they received low-interest loans to purchase equipment, to build houses, dams and other infrastructure. They were linked to banks and to viable markets. Even more importantly, they received regular training and technical advisory services from the Department of Conservation and Extension (the equivalent of our AGRITEX).
The white government took all necessary steps to convert these crude English soldiers into farmers over a long period. In fact the support to farmers was continuous. Even with all that support, pointed out Mr Graham, many of the would-be white farmers failed.
The lesson from the above white farmer’s experience is that the learning curve for good farming is a long, if not painful one. It requires deliberate investments to support the farmers. And like a real football team, constant coaching, to remain in the league. Dynamos FC club supporters know about the long four-year spell that coach Pasuwa had with the team. And when he left the fortunes of the club dipped. Regular good coaching is essential for success!
So it is with farmers and farming. There is need for constant coaching through training and technical advisory services. We have had challenges in this regard and it is no wonder our Team Agriculture is struggling. Farmers need training and technical advisory services on a continuous basis. They are like an inexperienced football team who require regular coaching. We may need to take stock of our new farmers’ capacity to farm as we try to explain their apparent inability to improve our food security situation. The human factor content of the farmer is a critical factor in the agricultural production equation.
And for farm workers, the human factor content is also critical. The manager, the supervisor, the foreman, the security guard, the farm labourer – all must have the right human factor content of competence, commitment, persistence, honesty and staying power to ensure productivity on the farm.
The farmer, his bankers, service providers and all the various levels of employees constitute the bottom of the agriculture drum. Into this drum we pour the agricultural investments: inputs and various other investments.
The porosity of the agricultural drum at its bottom depends on the knowledge, experience and management expertise of the farmer and his/her team. So the money invested in farming leaks through the porous bottom. Agricultural investments are lost or retained depending on the human factor content of the players in the field.
The argument is that to improve and ensure sustainable agricultural productivity and food security, we must work to improve the human factor content in our systems.
As we have said before: ‘Mari hairime, chinorima vanhu!’
In the next episode we shall examine the human factor contents of other players in the agricultural value chain to see how it affects the systems’ capacity to provide food on a sustained basis.This way we hope to identify what needs to be done to ensure national food security, independence and sovereignty.

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