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Extension Opinion No 11: The untapped potential of homestead agriculture

The erosion of public sector extension
The success of commercial agriculture in South Africa has been as a result of a committed government that provided public support through qualified extension officers. These extension officers received general training at Diploma level, so that they could deal with issues of crop production and animal husbandry practically. Their training was based on scientific evidence that had gone beyond the theoretical stages of argument about its applicability. Hence, the extension officers were able to work closely with scientists or read science to extract information that would be shared with farmers. Effectively the extension officers were conduits of scientific knowledge.  
Farmers relied on the free public service to enhance their farming skills for decades. This allowed any farmer who had basic levels of education to grow from small-scale to large-scale commercial farmer level quickly. Farmers also worked in cooperatives that were reached easily by extension officers and government. In the past 30 to 40 years, the situation has changed dramatically. The role of government, through extension officers has been reduced or removed entirely. 

The hidden costs of private sector commodity led extension
The private sector, through consultants, has taken this role. Consequently, only the (old regime) large scale commercial farmers or (new South Africa) middle class persons can afford private advisors. Many of the private advisors push agricultural commodities that replace those that have been traditionally used by the farmers for decades or even centuries. That way, the farmers are forced to shift their systems and rely on systems that may not be sustainable ecologically and/or financially. When traditional systems of agriculture are abandoned, sustainable agriculture is abandoned. 

Yield optimisation versus sustainable production systems
Sustainable agriculture is the mode of farming that attempts to provide long-term sustained yields through the use of ecologically sound management technologies. This requires that agriculture be regarded as an ecosystem, and as such, farming and research are not mainly concerned with high yields of a particular commodity but rather with the optimisation of the system as a whole. It also requires looking beyond production economics and considering the vital issue of ecological stability. 

Proposals for change
If the objectives of the National Planning Commission (NPC) of South Africa, particularly as stated in Chapter 5 (“Increased investment in new agricultural technologies and development of adaptation strategies for the protection of rural livelihoods and expansion of commercial agriculture.”) and Chapter 6 (“Rural economies will be activated through improved infrastructure and service delivery, a review of land tenure, service to small and micro farmers…”) are to be achieved, we need to revert to the system that emphasises Agriculture as a School subject in order to: 
  • provide basic knowledge and encouragement for the youth to study Agricultural Sciences at tertiary levels 
  • create a foundation for an educated future farmer. 

We cannot ignore the potential role of Agriculture in rural economic development. There is a lot of land in rural homesteads, which can be used to expand the contribution of Agriculture to the national Gross Domestic Product, while reducing food insecurity effectively. 

Policy must address the big issues
Policy makers and funders should stop the superficial “rural development tourism” that is aimed at throwing financial resources for short term solutions to problems that need the participation of poor people and dedicated knowledgeable government staff.

Professor Modi is an agronomist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (School of Agricultural Sciences & Agribusiness) specialising in Seed Science and Technology. He also founded the Ezemvelo Farmers’ Organisation (EFO), the first association of small-scale farmers to obtain group certification in South Africa.

Click the image for a view of: Prof Modi highlights the need for systemic change
Prof Modi highlights the need for systemic change
Posted: 9/20/2012 (5:49:51 AM)


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