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Extension Opinion No 15: The Pondoland perspective

Agricultural extension on Communal Lands: A Pondoland perspective.

In Pondoland there are commercial farmers, semi commercial livelihood farmers, subsistence farmers and home gardeners. There are many more of the latter than the former. There is also a growing acknowledgement of the equal importance of all forms of agriculture in addressing national food security goals. It is important that as service providers that we understand the dynamics and the sizes of these groups. The structure of the extension services is determined by our understanding of the types of farmers. Simple research methods appropriate to the farmers and extension agents should be used to collect the information on which to plan and implement the extension services. 

Available evaluation tools can be used by the farmers and the extension agents, to understand into which group farmers fall, what skills they need to become sustainable within the group and what they would need to do to become part of another group in the development chain. Farmers can assess themselves as to whether they wish to move into another group or have the resources to do so. Different indicators can be used to assess themselves.  A simple and critical indicator is the quantity of stored water a farmer has. This will often determine what area a farmer can cultivate and whether commercialization is possible.
The skills, resources and different capabilities amongst farmers and micro farmers will establish their potential and what kinds of farmers will emerge. There is a view that commercial farming is the pinnacle of agriculture success. Rather more emphasis can be placed on assisting farmers to realize their potential within their own circumstances. Some people might be able to move from one group to another, whilst others might not be able to or might not want to. 

In order to service the groups of farmers the extension services should aim to differentiate their skills and retain specialized staff. The skills of an extension agent that will give assistance to home gardeners, is different from those who assist semi commercial and subsistence farmers. For some, the skills might be “ hands on” and motivational, whilst others can be specifically technical.  The skills to support agricultural development are wide. Each district of 30 000 homesteads, needs rural engineers that can design water harvesting systems, build small dams, operate borehole pumps, rehabilitate lands and facilitators that can build organisational and business skills. These skills are rare in the communal areas. Extension staff have little practical or commercial experience. The present staff will need significant additional training if the extension service is to adequately service the farmers. 

It is difficult to imagine agricultural development without at least one Agriculture Support Center or an Agricultural Development Node in each district. Nurseries, soil improvement materials amongst other agricultural inputs need to be available, preferably through the enterprises of individuals or groups. The extension service should take the responsibility of facilitating this. These can be linked to training, research and demonstration. The Center should also have a mobile nursery/training unit that goes out into the district. The extension service must do more to facilitate farmer access to inputs, but not by undercutting existing enterprises. It should be a place that has arable land, water and is accessible.

Importing skills back into the rural areas will be essential if the speed of agricultural development is to increase. The extension services could facilitate the attraction of necessary of skills. Districts could have programs to encourage the services of engineers and technicians. Trained staff working on farms and nurseries in SA, who come from the Eastern Cape should be encouraged to return. Opportunities should be made available to them so that they can share the skills and experience they have learnt elsewhere. This would expedite the training process and save starting from scratch. 

The public works programs often have very little to show for themselves on the ground. Agricultural extension could make them more valuable. The extension services should be directed to manage public works programs for the benefit of agricultural development. These programs would address issues of soil erosion, soil fertility, swales and contour establishment, and invasive plant control as is already the case. This would best happen in cooperation with farmers. Extension agents would be involved in the design and establishment of water harvesting systems and assist in constructing small dams and ponds. Agriculture is dependent on water for intensification. It is the most important issue that needs to be addressed if food security in dry seasons is to be attained and if farmers are to move in the development chain.

Given the demise of draught power and the continuing failure of Government services to address mechanization, new methods have to be developed for promotion of mechanization. Emphasis should be placed on smaller and affordable mechanization.  Although there has been a movement towards individual ownership of machinery, the selection and support process continues to result in a poor service to the farmers. Methods still need to be adequately piloted.

Extension services in each district need a component capable of training people in organisational and business skills and promoting savings and investment. Poor organisation on irrigation schemes is hindering production. Cooperatives and “projects” exist only in terms of their names. Business skills training methods and models are rudimentary or non-existent and will have to be borrowed and developed. 
In most areas a significant amount of investment is being made by residents, in homesteads and status livestock that could be directed into other agricultural development. Ways should be found to free this cash resource and re direct it into agricultural production, rather than farmers being led to believe Government will provide.  

Richard Bolus is a nurseryman and rural development practitioner with over 35 years of experience of working with small farmers in communal areas. He works for the Wild Coast Farm and Forest Organisation in Port St Johns.

Click the image for a view of: The Pondoland perspective
The Pondoland perspective
Posted: 9/25/2012 (10:16:40 AM)


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