August 2016


JANNIE DE VILLIERS, uitvoerende hoofbestuurder/CEO

I am sitting and reading news reports about the agricultural sector in various countries and in so doing I become acutely aware of the unique problems of other producers. The drought, political upheaval and poor economic conditions in South Africa tend to make you focus on your own dilemma.

I read about the demonstrations by British producers who received up to 55% of their annual income from the EU subsidy system. Maybe that is worse than a drought! I often joke with the Europeans and the Americans about it like this: ‘In South Africa we farm our land to get an income and you farm your government to get an income.’

The irony is that we are now battling to keep that land with which we have to guarantee our income while they, on the other hand, are battling to retain their government subsidies in order to maintain their income. Both these situations are unfavourable for agricultural producers, but which in the end is the worst?

Once in class a professor from the Business School in Genève, Switzerland, told us that policy should be like traffic rules: Predictable. You must be able to predict with reasonable certainty that all cars will stop when the traffic light changes to red. This way all road users will generally know what to expect and what to do. Well, needless to say that it was this professor’s first visit to South Africa and that he, up till then, had little experience of our taxi drivers. This principle, however, remains constant.

Grain producers in South Africa have the ability to survive through droughts and to make do, regardless. We know there are times like these and therefore we try to prepare in advance by making plans, but to prepare for the unpredictability of policy is not easy. Grain SA endeavours on a daily basis to make it more predictable and to ensure that policy makers better understand the implications of haphazard changes.

With the municipal elections, high food prices and an increasing unhappiness among especially the unemployed youth, fiery policy makers are omnipresent in the meetings we attend here in Pretoria. It is not only their ignorance in respect of the agricultural sector that is exposed, but also ill-considered instructions given by politicians that either this or that should happen instantaneously.

Quite often the outrageous expectations of such officials and their expected outcomes must yield to the realities of mother nature and the season: ‘Sir, we cannot plant maize now – even though it rained. It is winter in the Free State. We only plant again in November.’

This yielding to nature (and not like ‘they’ perceive it as yielding to stubborn producers) opens the door to continue the discussion on policy. The harsh realities of the drought and the effect of high food prices on the poor communities are a big problem for policy makers.

There is no quick fix for this. Good, long term predictable policies are all that can soften the negative impact. Soften, yes – not remove. Agriculture is like a large ship; you will not be able to turn it around within the hour.

If I understand the guys in the south of our country correctly, it appears like the dry year in the Swartland has turned for the better and that the winter crops are coming along well. With reference to the north, we are now in the session after tea on the fifth day of a cricket test match. We are batting for a draw. We still have a few wickets in hand, but we cannot win anymore. Hang in there guys! I am getting just as excited as you and look forward to a new, wet season.

Publication: August 2016

Section: Features