Farmer prepares ground for ‘future shocks’

iolbusrep ss small scale farmer 8.JPG Nhlanhla Phillips Third-year agricultural student Ayabonga Zwane is gaining practical experience on Mike Mlenganas farm, where he has learnt a great deal. Pictures: Nhlanhla Phillips

Mike Mlengana stomped through his field of vegetables, navigating the tangle of vines covering the giant pumpkins, butternut and beetroot flourishing in the fertile ground beneath his feet.

Grinning, he tore an enormous beetroot from the earth.

“This is food security,” he said, holding the vegetable in his hand. “God is great, you know. Every night, I went on my knees, looked up above and asked God to help me. I asked my workers to pray, and pray.”

And this month, it finally came - so much rain that it ripped the roof off his large storeroom.

But Mlengana, who leads the African Farmers Association, was not complaining.

“Why would you not be happy, when you're sitting on this after this horrible drought?” he said, surveying the farm and animals he was slowly nursing back to health.

“I’m somewhere now, where I thought I would be nowhere two months ago.”

For Mlengana, and his neighbouring farmers in this part of the Magaliesburg area, the drought has been eased - for now. But its devastating effects remain.

More than 30 of Mlengana's cattle perished after his borehole dried up. There was little he could do, other than use water from neighbours - and pray.

Another cow died yesterday - he had just now fed its meagre remains to his dogs.

“It was too lean, and it couldn't recover from the drought,” he said, shaking his head.

“My cows were so thin, and they died in different stages because there was no grazing land.”

Mlengana, who is largely a beef, grain and sheep farmer, had just loaded cattle on to a truck to be sent to an auction.

“To repay the debts from this drought, I’m forced to sell some of my cattle,” he said, shrugging.

“My bills were so high from borrowing feed.”

He was speaking just hours before Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was to deliver his Budget, revealing the government's plans to deal with the devastating drought that turned five provinces, including the North West, into disaster areas.

Mlengana held out little hope help would come.

“All the provincial government ever offered me was two bags of feed for my 300 cattle,” he spat. “Can you imagine? The government has failed farmers on an epic scale, especially us, the black, small-scale farmer the government always says it is supporting.

“I informed them of my problems with the drought in June. They came, they took photos. They said they would come back and help me. I’m still waiting.

“Gordhan needs to give us farmers R10 billion so we can deal with the effects of this drought and prepare for the future shocks that are coming.”

When Ayabonga Zwane, a third-year agricultural student, arrived at Mlengana’s farm to do his practical training in November, he thought he had made a mistake.

“I phoned my lecturer and told him I must be in the wrong place. When I came here in November, it was horrible. Everything was dead. There was no water at all. That there was nothing I could learn here.”

Zwane was wrong - it was his determination that grew the vegetables with little water for the thirsty ground.

“We buried the roots very deep for them to take... I’ve learnt so much about how to manage a farm in times of drought. Water, water, water - that's the only problem. We just didn't have it. I remember Mike had to go to Joburg to get water for us to bathe - that’s how bad it was.”

In his speech, Gordhan announced that over the next three years, R15 billion would be allocated for land acquisition, farm improvements and growing agro-processing opportunities. Funds had been provided for feed and livestock support for farmers, as well as for disaster relief measures.

But Johannes Moller, the president of Agri-SA, said it was not enough.

“I think the response from the government to this drought has been wholly inadequate. Yes, the minister delivered a responsible budget, but he should have given more attention to food security. There should have been direct aid.”

Small-scale farmers like those who are members of Mlengana’s association fared worst.

“The government has spent billions over the past two decades on land reform, but now when new farmers are facing their first serious setbacks, there's almost no aid for them. You see how their cattle are dying and their harvests destroyed.

“Commercial farmers have struggled too.

“I think organised agriculture, through our initiatives, has done more than the government did for our country’s farmers in this drought.

“The serious challenges after this drought are how do we get our farms back into production, rebuild our herds and get farmers to plant adequate volumes of maize again? The consumer must brace for a steep increase in food prices at the end of this year.”

Professor Nick Vink, chairman of the department of agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University, said Gordhan’s speech was “merely a reiteration” of government programmes.

“There's nothing new there. I would think the real story for agriculture lies in the fact that fiscal rectitude is at the top of the minister’s agenda, and that he has, in the process, avoided raising taxes unnecessarily.”

For Mlengana, he won’t forget how his neighbours - small and large farmers alike - were his lifeline, not the state when his water dried up.

“What I've learnt is that it's all about how you prepare for these future shocks, because they will come.

“See those bales?” he said, pointing to the numerous curls of hay on his land.

“I’ve already prepared for June - for winter. I’ve bought more rainwater harvesting tanks and I’m storing my water. The point is hard work, and prayer, because if you're going to depend on the government for help, you'll drown.”

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