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SF Special: South African Farmers Meet Tough Challenges

“South African farming is not for sissies.” When I first heard that line from a farmer in Delmas, Gauteng, a northern province in South Africa, I chuckled at the bluntness of the line as well as the subtle insinuation that farmers in other parts of the world are sissies.

It wasn’t until I heard several farmers repeat the exact same phrase that I realized this wasn’t just a quip from one sharp-tongued farmer. It was a mantra, a way farmers there face the realities of the lifestyle and profession they love.

While farming is never an easy line of work, South African farmers do face an extraordinary combination of challenges. Land reform laws continue to be tweaked, working to right the wrongs of the past by returning ground or providing compensation to families who lost their land. However, in a country where political uncertainty is one of the only certainties, this creates instability for farmers and potential agriculture investors. With unemployment rates as high as 25%, theft and violence continue to be an endemic problem for farmers. Growing crops in South Africa’s sandy soils with little rainfall has always been a challenge, but it’s one that climate change has compounded. And when rain doesn’t fall, as farmers in the North experienced last year and those in the Western Cape are dealing with today, there are no subsidies available to help farmers make it through drought years.

Despite this, the South African farmers I spoke to seemed optimistic, resilient, and determined. Part of this stems from living in a country that has undergone a dramatic transformation during the past 25 years, transitioning to a democracy, repealing apartheid, and adopting a new constitution. And some of the positive attitude certainly comes from the fact that South Africa is leading the charge to feed Africa’s growing population, which will jump from 1 billion today to 2 billion in 2050.

To understand how South Africa is making that happen as well as where some of that optimism comes from, you need to know these three things about South African agriculture.

Editor’s Note: In March, I attended the International Federation of Ag Journalist’s (IFAJ) Congress in South Africa. We spent the week touring farms and hearing from experts within South Africa’s ag sector.

1. Subsistence farming leads only by the numbers.

There are almost 3 million agricultural households in South Africa, based on its last population census in 2011. However, there are only 39,995 commercial farmers in the country, according to Agri SA, a South African based federation of farming organizations. The majority of the ag households are subsistence farmers, who produce enough for their own consumption. There are also smallholder farmers who sell their surplus and small commercial farmers who produce for retailers.

From a production perspective, looking specifically at corn, subsistence farmers typically average 15 bushels per acre. Commercial farmers, who have access to better equipment and seed technology, will see yields closer to 134 bushels per acre.

“It’s the large commercial farmers that are making us stand out,” says Hamlet Hlomendlini with Agri SA. “These are the export-oriented farms.”

While commercial farmers are defined more by their production levels than acreage size, farmers can’t make a living off less than 2,400 acres unless they are located in the Western Cape, according to Johan Van Rooyen from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Commercial farmers were the focus of our trip since South Africa’s ag sector has shifted toward commercial farming during the past 25 years as the country worked to become food secure.

Dutoit Agri is a 120-year old farm in the Western Cape that produces, distributes, and markets 250,000 tons of fresh produce every year.

2. South Africa is the only food-secure country in Africa.

The push toward large-scale farming led to South Africa becoming a net exporter of food in 2008 with ag exports continuing to trend higher since then.

In 2015, South Africa exported $3.92 billion in processed ag products and $4.75 billion in primary ag products. That year, the U.S. imported $281 million in South African ag products, including tree nuts, fresh fruit, wine and beer, and processed fruits and vegetables. A large share – about 40% – of South Africa’s produce goes to the rest of Africa.

One trade issue that got brought up repeatedly during our visit was imports of dark chicken meat (legs, thighs, etc.) that are preferred by South African consumers over white meat (chicken breasts), which are the coveted chicken cuts in other parts of the world.

“The South African poultry industry is hurt by cheap imports from the European Union, Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, from the U.S.,” says Hlomendlini.

For some context, in 2001, South Africa began putting anti-dumping duties on U.S. chicken legs, dropping U.S. chicken exports to near-zero levels. Two years ago, to be included in the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), South Africa agreed to import U.S. chicken, pork, and beef. The quota was set at 65,000 tons of chicken legs at a tariff rate of 37%. Over that level, South Africa can begin imposing the anti-dumping duty again, according to the USDA-ERS.

Last year, the U.S. exported 21,291 metric tons of chicken leg quarters to South Africa. While this is in agreement with AGOA, chicken farmers like Luc Smalle argue that it hurts South Africa’s poultry market and costs jobs. According to the South African Poultry Industry, for every 10,000 tonnes of chicken meat that are imported, 1,000 jobs are lost in South Africa.

A Pannar Seed agronomist shows the difference between white and yellow maize at this research farm in South Africa. Photo credit: Tom Bicknell

3. South Africa is the largest corn producer and exporter in Africa despite challenging conditions.

South African farmers produce primarily yellow corn in the East while farmers in the West grow white varieties. GMOs are accepted in South Africa, and two types of genetically modified corn are available – one for glyphosate and the other for Busseola or stalk borer.

South Africa’s corn production is expected to hit a record high this year of 572 million bushels, up from last year’s 303 million bushels during an extreme drought. For comparison, the U.S. grew 15 billion bushels of corn in 2016.

“We had the worst drought in a century last year and had to import corn for the first time,” says Hlomendlini. “One of our biggest risks in farming is drought.”

The 2016 drought aside, access to enough water to grow high-yielding corn is an obstacle every year.

The average annual rainfall in South Africa is 18 inches per year. There are 40 million acres of arable land in the country and irrigation is used on only 3.2 million.

“To expand irrigation or apply for new rights to irrigate is a challenge for many farmers, as there isn’t more water available and because many units have been earmarked for Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) by the Department of Water Affairs in catchment areas,” says Alani Janeke, a reporter for Free State Agriculture, a farmer’s organization in the Free State province in South Africa. The goals of BEE include empowering “more black people to own and manage enterprises” and empowering “rural and local communities by enabling their access to economic activities, land, infrastructure ownership, and skills”, according to Brand South Africa.

To access water, farmers must own the water rights to their land. Farmers can irrigate according to the stipulations of the Department of Water Affairs, which differs for every province, as each region’s rivers are managed differently due to the diverse climate. “Due to the drought, some irrigation farmers in the Free State’s water usage has been cut by up to 75% in some catchment areas, and the restrictions have not been lifted yet as many dams have not reached sufficient levels after the rains early this year,” adds Janeke.

The majority of irrigation is done through center pivots, although some fruit farms do use more advanced irrigation. Graff Fruit, one of the farms I visited in the Western Cape, uses drip irrigation in its orchards that can be controlled remotely through an app, a practice similar to the advanced technology farmers are using in the U.S. to control irrigation.

With the limited amount of water available as well as South Africa’s sandy soils, farmers plant corn at low populations – from 4,000 seeds per acre up to 36,000 – with two ears per plant. Like the planting population, row width also varies greatly based on the conditions. Narrow rows start at 36 inches, and wide rows go up to 83 inches.

“The fact that South African farmers produce in less-than-perfect environments compared with other regions and that there are no subsidy levels is incredible,” says Francois Strydom, CEO of Senwes, a South African agriculture company. “Our farmers have to box above their division.”

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