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Nampo agricultural show highlights the scale and sophistication of South African farming

Farming in SA is undergoing a revolution, and not the kind envisioned by the Economic Freedom Fighters and its copycats in the ruling party.

Techniques such as precision farming, which uses GPS technology to boost productivity and yields, are widening the already yawning gap between commercial agriculture and the subsistence plots still being tilled in the former homelands and other impoverished rural areas. A trip to industry group Grain SA’s annual Nampo agricultural show reveals the sheer scale of what is unfolding in the fields.
 
One of the first things that strike a visitor to the Nampo grounds, down the maize-lined and potholed R30 from Bothaville, is the size.

The only things that are relatively small are the planes on the runway that some of the farmers use as their mode of transport. A lot of the farmers themselves are in the buffalo league when it comes to size. In the parking lots used by the plebs, the bakkies and SUVs are rhino-sized. And some of the equipment on display at the showgrounds can only be described as elephantine, if not downright Jurassic.

Take, for example, the US-made Case IH harvester. Its tyres rise over 1.7m off the ground, and a ladder is needed to climb into the cab. There, a GPS-operated monitoring system will measure your soil moisture and yields while it is churning up the maize stalks. Got only four tons per hectare in one place, six tons in another? Next time around you can rectify that problem. The price tag: R5.5-million, according to the local sales rep this correspondent spoke to.

Nearby stands a sprayer for distributing chemicals and pesticides. Spreading horizontally in front of a futuristic-looking tractor, it has a wingspan of 36m and can spray about 300ha to 400ha a day, compared to older and smaller models which are lucky to do 100m. It’s going for R3.7-million.

Meanwhile, at another stand, one finds a Belgian-made Dewulf potato harvester the size of a bus. Its price is north of R2-million and there are bigger models to be had going for more than R5-million.

The picture that emerges is pretty obvious. Commercial agriculture in South Africa is big money and big business, using big lands. It is dominated by a few thousand mostly white (and ageing) commercial farmers who are effectively feeding 55 million people. The average age of grain farmers now is north of 55, Grain SA CEO Jannie de Villiers estimates. This correspondent ran into a friend of his in-laws at the show, an active commercial farmer who is a sprightly 89. Meanwhile, the farm loan book is estimated at around R160-billion.

And South African farmers are mirroring hi-tech methods that are taking farming on a global scale by storm. Precision agriculture is at the cutting edge. Making use of GPS technology, farmers can map their fields out in grids, gathering soil data so they can know exactly what inputs need to go where.

At harvest time, the GPS gathers additional data. Yields and productivity get huge boosts — something crucial in drought-prone South Africa. The national maize crop this season is estimated at around 10.6 million tons, just shy of the 11.5 million tons that South Africa consumes, but there are ample stocks from 2018 to see the country through. Still, the margin between feeding ourselves and relying on imports is tight. It would be tighter if it weren’t for technologies such as precision farming.

“When you don’t have subsidies from the government, you need scale and precision farming to feed our urbanising population,” Grain SA’s De Villiers told Daily Maverick.

While he does not have precise estimates, he reckons that “almost all” South African commercial grain farmers today are using precision technology in one way or another – a view shared by other farmers at Nampo. If you are a commercial farmer and not in this space yet, you are a bit like the guy who stuck to his horses and oxen when the neighbour got the first tractor in the district.

This should all be food for thought for the incoming administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has said that land reform will not target productive fields and will be carried out in a way that does not threaten food security. Commercial farming in this country is capital and technology intensive, and is set to become more so. Driverless tractors are also on the horizon as well as unheard-of technologies that some scientists no doubt are busy cooking up.

To be a success in this space requires a lot of money and know-how. This is also a global trend. Populist policies that involve confiscation and redistribution will do more than hurt food security, investor sentiment and economic growth (and those are worrying enough). It would also set South Africa back technologically. And South Africa does not need to be a “de-developing” economy. 


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