Third Runner Up - Small-scale emerging farmers might be the key to restoring more than land equity. Michelle Marais

Hollard Insure and and Agri News Net - Young Agri Writers competition- Third Runner up -

Small-scale emerging farmers might be the key to restoring more than land equity.

Agriculture is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the “science and art of cultivating plants and livestock.” The agricultural industry is in many ways like the very living organisms it cultivates. It is constantly sensing and adapting to change in its environment, mitigating risk, and evolving to maximize the survival by eliminating what failed and reproducing what works. We have allocated copious resources into the growth and development of this industry often focusing on the most organismic trait, energy processing. We have emphasized the input output ratio in our research and production practices for years. This developed a mindset focused on industrializing agriculture for maximum output. Our training institutions are quick follow suit, often easily concluding that we are the “educated youth” ready to take the industry by storm- without asking the question whether what we learned will actually help us survive. Perhaps comparing the industry to a living organism can provide helpful insight to understanding its survival and moving towards mastering both the science and art of agriculture.

Sensing and adapting to change

The 2021 budget speech, Minister Tito Mboweni empitomised the governments focus on small-scale emerging farmers and land restitution, which is one of the paramount changes currently occurring in the sector. 10.1 billion Rand has been allocated to land restitution claims and post-settlement support. Land reform is supported with the notion that it will lead to economic growth, alleviate poverty, and achieve greater income equality. Land reform paves the way for thriving success or obliterating failure and only the management of resources will determine the path. The increasing numbers of small-scale farmers who are often new to farming provides a rare “clean slate” which might be extrication tool we have long been awaiting. These farmers are open to learning new techniques and approaching agricultural production in a new way, often relying solely on the practices they are taught. If ever there was an opportunity to revolutionise agriculture in South Africa, its now.

Mitigating risk by eliminating what failed

Small scale farmers are infamous for often failing once they have acquired land. We fail to acknowledge that we have changed their environment without adapting their model for optimal survival. The industrial methods these farmers are expected to use are not suited to smaller farms. The conventional commercial model is successful on large commercial farms because large areas of cultivated land decrease fixed costs per hectare, and producing high volumes allows for the operation of profitable enterprises at comparatively low margins. Large farms have adapted to this model and its requirements of high investments in input costs that are allocated towards infrastructure, mechanization, herbicides, and fertilizer which are critical to the long-term survival of the farm.

Small scale emerging farmers are exactly that- small scale. The previous approaches have seldomly been successful, as these farmers are expected to perform in an environment they have not been adapted to. A new perspective and coinciding adaption are long overdue. Allowing these farmers to evolve from conventional towards regenerative practices may minify many of the typical challenges and risks associated with investment in small-scale emerging farmers.

Reproducing what works

Regenerative agricultural practices have proven to be well-suited to smaller farms. These practices do not only increase farmer’s profitability, but also aid the regeneration of land that has been degraded by previous conventional practices. The conventional industrial farming methods are harmful to the environment, depleting soil quality and biodiversity increasing input costs yearly to maintain yields in the deteriorating environment. Regenerative agriculture allows for lower input costs and lower mechanization and infrastructure requirements while diversifying income sources, improving soil health, and recovering the damage inferred by traditional farming practices. Regenerative agriculture is seen by many as the key to reducing and possibly reversing the effects of climate change by simply moving carbon dioxide from the air to the soil.

Evolving to increase chances of survival

Land reform is aimed at restoring equity among farmers and citizens of South Africa. Introducing small-scale farmers into the industry provides ample opportunity for not only improving land equity, but simultaneously evolving production methods that will benefit the environment, improve soil and water quality, promote long-term sustainability, increase the value and productivity of our agrarian land all while improving sustainable profitability among South African farmers.

The agricultural sector of South Africa is in a labyrinth of challenges and obstacles that regenerative agriculture offers many answers to and emerging farmers could be holding the key.

I am Michelle Marais, and I am a Master's student in agricultural economics at the University of the Free State. I am particularly interested in agricultural marketing and the development of small scale farmers in South Africa. I wrote about regenerative agriculture because I believe it offers a lot of hope for the future of agriculture.