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Extension Opinion No.24: Views from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture

Point of departure: Good strategies are informed by excellent reconnaissance and intelligence

After the provincial working session on extension policy an internal review (Messrs Adriaan Conradie, Faan Matthee, Jan Theron) of the deemed most relevant components has been done to reflect an opinion on agricultural extension policy.  

On Agricultural Policy
Extension is one component of agricultural development. Agricultural policy should be seen as the overarching strategy that informs sub strategies like research, extension, training, business, marketing and regulations.
Questions like where do we see South-African agriculture in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time? - is the typical vision that is required to define objectives, goals, programmes, projects and activities and finally and most important, attainable implementation plans given the available resources. 
In this regard policy documents such as “The Green Paper on Land Reform”, “Integrated Growth and Development Plan” and “The National Development Plan” should inform and guide any agricultural sub-policy.

On Farming and Agricultural Business 
The practice of cultivating the land or raising stock, farming, has become one of the most challenging businesses in South Africa in 2012. As soon as agricultural produce is being sold it becomes a business. Subsistence farming might escape most external inputs only if the available natural resources and the specific farming system are in a complete, integrated, sustainable cycle with virtually no external inputs, apart from the labour of the farmer. This could constitute a livelihood. 

However, the ever rising cost structure and demanding market and regulatory environment of conventional, commercial agriculture has become so prominent that it seems that profits and compliance have become possible only with larger scale operations, new technologies and higher efficiencies. Vertical integration [input supply-production-processing-packaging-delivery (own R&D across value chain)], has become the benchmark for industrial agriculture. Consequently, any agricultural venture in South Arica is facing this global reality.   

The question is which agricultural business models are most appropriate in South Africa given the total spectrum of production areas and circumstances? However, it must also take into account the global drive to produce more food as a reaction to threatening food insecurity in the world.

On Cooperatives   
Cooperatives seem to be a vital component that must add the benefits of scale effect to small holders in order to produce competitively. Current systems and arrangements to deliver this seem inadequate.  

On Agricultural Information and Research 
Even the lowest level of agriculture requires infrastructure, implements and equipment. The development of new technology together with the applicable methodology is not the domain of one supplier only. The technology development subsections in agriculture have become highly specialised and sophisticated. Agriculture has no future without research as new technologies is one of a few variables that can result in affordable food for the world. Maybe provincial departmental research should focus on appropriate or better technologies and methodologies that are required for different production systems and adaptive and systems research should become even more prominent. This implies that available new technologies are searched, investigated, tested and customised for local conditions. Forums that inform the research agenda should be established for different categories of farmers or farmer typology per commodity group or alternative crop or animal.  The current SKOG initiative in the Western Cape is a model worthy for consideration in this regard (see section: On Agricultural Extension Policy).
On Qualifications and Agricultural Training

The career path for extension officers is important if the recruitment and retention of qualified, quality personnel is valued. The current system for career advancement is not effective in this regard and provides limited incentives for young natural scientists to stay in government. A personnel performance evaluation system where extension officers could advance to the top of the notch of a rank in three years (satisfactory), two years (above average) and one year (exceptional) has proven to be highly successful in the past. Part of this was a full scale merit evaluation been done on an official before moving to the next rank. The current procedure where an official must apply for the next rank normally at another locality or province is deemed to be counterproductive and in most cases does not make economic sense to the specific official concerned.

The South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP) requires the following (see section in italics, verbatim) from extension officers to apply for registration which include most of the inputs that are required for extension. Making this registration a condition and part of career development could further enhance, enrich and incentivise this profession.  Please note the wide scope of work.
{Scope of work involved

Agricultural Extension
  1. Advising and aiding farmers with farm, planning in terms of biological principles – for example:  the separating of veld types, crop choice and fertilization according to soil potential and the results of a soil analyses, and layout of camps.
  2. Advising and aiding farmers in connection with different farming practices including crop production practices, planning of mechanisation and conservation measures.
  3. Determining soil potential for agricultural purposes and the alternate use of agricultural and land for non-agricultural purposes.
  4. 4. Advice to farmers and detailing of techniques in connection with irrigation, scheduling, keeping soil potential, infiltration tempo, crop characteristics, etc in mind.
  5. Identification of plant diseases and insect plaques on crops as well as problems concerning tillage, weed control and conservation.  Advice concerning corrective measures (contacting subject specialists n problem cases.)
  6. Inspections into disasters such as hail, flooding, droughts, pests and plagues, veld fires, etc.  Recommendation as to prevention and/or correction of such problems. 
  7. Integration of farming branches on scientific grounds in the practical situation taking into account the biological and economical realities.
  8. Layout, measuring yields, biometric analysis and interpretation of results of cooperative trials and applied area research.  Detailing of norms and production techniques for specific land types and branches of farming and agricultural activities.
  9. Conceptualisation of conscious and unconscious needs and problems of farmers, and determination of the agricultural development priorities, objectives and strategies.  The potential of human and natural resources and national and international consumer demands must be taken into account.
  10. Surveys and biometric analysis of data and the refinement of techniques in connection with the extent, the nature and problems associated with specific branches of farming in particular areas and the recommendations for corrective measures.
  11. Writing of scientific and semi-scientific articles concerning agricultural and extension aspects.
  12. Academic research in the agricultural and extension fields towards the attainment of higher post-graduate qualifications.}

A National Education and Training Strategy for Agriculture (AET Strategy) was developed by DAFF. This strategy highlighted priority skills needs and constraints within the agricultural sector and categorises needs within the following five broad areas (see section in italics). The mentioned strategy has been implemented through the Extension Recovery Plan regarding extension per se and this investment made a significant difference pertaining the qualifications and capacity of extension officers in government.  

  1. Agricultural production – requesting that the past focus on a narrow band of commodities (relevant mainly to the commercial sector) and related research be expanded to address the needs of small‐scale and subsistence farmers (e.g. more focus on mixed farming and rural livelihood sustainability skills).
  2. Agricultural engineering – with specific focus to be placed on technologies suitable for small‐scale farmers (e.g. relevant and post‐harvesting techniques related to processing and storage of produce) – to address this need the scarcity of agricultural engineers requires attention.
  3. Agricultural economics – a critical need was identified for general agricultural economic skills (ranging spectrum of farm planning, farm management, enterprise management, marketing, finance, etc.) – with the need to train both farmers and extension officers in such fields.
  4. Agricultural development – a specific need was identified to develop agricultural extension officers in supporting especially emerging and small‐scale farmers over the full spectrum (a need exists for both new curriculum in the training of new extension officers and the re‐training and upgrading of existing officers).
  5. Veterinarians – the need to develop state veterinarians in order for the state to perform its role and function (particularly in its preventative, monitoring and regulatory role and function).
On Regulations
The regulatory environment has become somehow a monstrous entity to deal with purely from an agricultural production perspective. Compliance to regulations range from items like environmental issues, natural resources, product standards, food safety to labour legislation and fair labour practises to mention a few. Supporting systems for new entrants to comply in this regard will be paramount.   

On Agricultural Extension
It has been acknowledged that agricultural extension services provided by government in South Africa are less efficient than it should be. A lot of reasons can be given but in the Western Cape the focus on infrastructure development (CASP), the outflow of experience through retirement and other channels, as well as appointments of less experienced officials could have contributed significantly to this situation. Other factors like relatively few officials that are available to cover the demands for all systems, ranging from household food security to high level commercial farming, have in a sense diluted the quality of extension and dedicated problem solution at farm level.  Contact with the industry, its new technologies and real challenges have been lost somehow, while the focus was on the implementation of agricultural support programmes. It must be acknowledged too that the agricultural industry in South Africa is highly competitive with little margin for error. The South African farmer at commercial level is farming with limited governmental support whilst it is competing in global markets. Threats are prevalent with exports as well as imports. The result of this is immense pressure on margins, profitability, and viability of farming.  This situation might have an even bigger and accelerating effect regarding pressure for larger scale of farming locally, in comparison with global trends. This means that even in the case where emerging farmers are supported initially they will reach the stage where governmental support will diminish or terminate. At that stage they will be exposed to the full forces of the global environment. While the global trend is to make farming units bigger to enable farmers to utilise the economy of scale and to escape the income/cost crunch, extension needs to support new and small farmers with new approaches and technology to develop them to grow bigger and become more sustainable. Within this highly competitive environment it is eminent that a highly effective extension service is required to enable profitable and sustainable agricultural development. However, no extension officer can guide and assist a small scale farmer to grow to a commercial level if he/she has no contact or engagement with the high tech commercial agricultural sector as well.  Hence, unless extension is able to make an impact in these circumstances, it is obsolete.
Traditional extension focused on persuasion of farmers to adopt new innovations and technologies. One of the most important reasons was that although new information from research became available, farmers did not apply it as expected. Hence, the idea was to “translate” this information into a palatable form and communicate it to farmers in a way they would understand the benefits thereof. Consequently, extension programmes had specific goals and objectives and even specified the percentage of farmers from the target group that should be persuaded to apply the new technology. Such programmes were quite comprehensive and items ranged from training to communication strategies where all the different types of channels like farm visits, demonstrations, case studies, pamphlets, newspapers, radio talks, farmers’ days, study groups and tours were incorporated. This process was normally well-structured with proper monitoring and evaluation in the form of reports. Extension officers had to register facets, programmes or projects that were in line with the agricultural development objectives of the region (comparable to provincial agricultural structure at present). However, it must be acknowledged that some support programmes from the government like drought aid or conversion of marginal land to pastures had a disruptive effect on extension because the same official had to do both.

Various extension strategies were deployed such as: facets on specific departmental strategic goals (persuasion to establish drought resistant crops); permanent audiences (farmers were trained/enlightened through scheduled programmes covering the total range of farming components from natural resources to economics and finances); whole farm approach where planning of all components took place to create master plans for farms with multi-disciplinary inputs coordinated and facilitated by extension officers.

As time had gone by agriculture became more complex and the demand for specialisation increased. Specialist extension officers or industry specialists were developed and appointed to provide this kind of support to farmers and colleagues. Innovative farmers also seek advice beyond government boundaries because government could not keep abreast of all new technologies and competencies required. While it was a prominent agricultural leader in the past the government became more of a supporter and regulator with less impact regarding agricultural innovation per se. The impact differed by industry and it seemed that more intensive crop industries were in general less dependent on government inputs for cutting edge information regarding agricultural practice. However, transformation in agriculture and the challenge in terms of household food security changed the landscape overnight. The delivery of successful farming units under new management became the fresh challenge for government whilst the broader industry should be supported too.

This dualism in agriculture gave extension a second but very challenging life, as this task asks for a highly effective and specialised extension corps which should be leaders in the industry. As mentioned, the industry itself is very competitive and it’s a daunting task to settle emerging farmers successfully within this environment. Hence, new extension and developmental approaches must be created.     

On Agricultural Extension Policy
Any agricultural extension policy or model should ensure that the governmental  navel cord of extension officers stay intact, as they cannot be isolated to be employed by farmers’ organisations, NGO’s, municipalities or research organisations. A fragmented model like that will be very ineffective, ad hoc and counterproductive as there will be no guiding/management element with the knowledge to take control of the quality, capacity, training, relevance and management of the extension service rendered.

If a fragmented extension model will be followed, extension officers should rather be employed by government within a controlled extension environment, while seconded to other structured organisations that can add value like farmers’ cooperatives, research institutions, commodity organisations or NGO’s to keep the navel cord intact.

However, different models for the provision of extension and agricultural information services have been piloted in the Western Cape from 1998 onwards. The Netherland 750 Project and other initiatives were used for this purpose. Models that were tested were: 
  • Contracting (Government transferred full package –funding- of employee to the agent whom took full responsibility to employ and manage such a person regarding all aspects)
  • Result: The agency demonstrated a significant tendency not to honour the outcomes and conditions that have been agreed upon but rather to pursue own agendas and objectives.  The official was isolated and could not tap from other and better extension methodologies and capacity development initiatives.  
  • Secondment (Government paid full package of an employee already in its service and was responsible for all support, training and development that were required. The agency was responsible to manage the official according to agreed conditions and outcomes.)
  • Result: The result was slightly better than the previous one. However, the dual management arrangement was rather complicated and confusing to the official involved. The net result was deemed less effective than the existing deployment of extension officers in government at that stage.
  • Joint venture (Government partially contributed whilst other stakeholders provide the rest. Collaborative management towards these outcomes ensured good quality as government could also tap from effective private initiatives.) 
  • Result: This strategy resulted in the SKOG and SAND initiatives in the Swartland Region which could be described as enabling vehicles where research, adaptive research, systems research and extension as well as agricultural innovation has been facilitated. Stakeholders and role players across the spectrum were involved like coops, input providers, top commercial farmers, emerging farmers, universities, departmental researchers and extension officers.  SKOG is still intact today (after 12 years) and it could be described as “a mini factory of agricultural innovation”. However, the SAND initiative has indicated quite clearly that two systems {LISA; Low (external) Input Sustainable Agricultural (emerging farmers) and maximising production (commercial sector)} cannot be serviced completely and satisfactorily within the same domain and that research and technology requirements differ significantly. This is why a specialist from the extension branch had been appointed to do research specifically for emerging farmers at that stage.  
  • Effective extension services have been delivered by government in South Africa in the past and there is no reason that it cannot be done in future.
  • Investment in extension has already reaped improvement although it might still not be satisfactory. 
  • The decentralised infrastructure and deployment of extension in government is one of its strongest attributes.
  • The composition and institutions of government cover all/most aspects relevant to agricultural development.
  • The existing governmental agricultural extension infrastructure is seen as the only viable, major platform (albeit the weaknesses it might have) from which extension services can be launched at present. This indicates that extension should not be fragmented but that a strong base must be created from where any initiative, programme or process can be driven, controlled, managed, implemented, coordinated, facilitated, evaluated and monitored. 

A “Grand Strategy” has been suggested for agricultural development which is:
A defragmented, consolidated, differentiated approach with competent strategic alliances.

However, an extension policy should guide and facilitate the following:
  • A better planned and more programmed approach that will focus on well-determined and well-defined priorities (appropriate spectrum of role players involved) that are executed through well-planned and monitored extension projects.
  • Business acumen of extension officers will have to be added as a further competency to their agricultural technical/economic know-how.
  • Categorisation of farmers in farmer typologies which will provide better defined client profiles for more effective service delivery. The service package and arrangements of service suppliers might differ according to the differentiation that has been made. According to current policies at national level it seems that target groupings must be able to use land productively and profitable. Hence, investment and support to these entities must eventually add economic value which will benefit the farmer, employment and the country.
  • On-going investment regarding capacity building of extension officers and beef up extension in general. However, the demand for high performance and especially quality of output will have to be managed more closely. In this regard managers will have to be accountable. As in any winning organisation continuous training (live long learning) will have to be part of the landscape. 
  • Principles of the SARS model as an example of local excellence could be appraised and applied as applicable.   
  • Revision and adaptation of the current personnel performance and career path system.
  • Development of structures, systems and incentives for professional conduct and high performance. It might be necessary to create remuneration differentiation for subject matter groupings with a relatively high market value like economists or scarce groupings like soil scientists.  The enhancement of SACNASP registration for extension officers should form part of the building of a professional profile.  
  • Improvement and consolidation of the enabling environment for effective funding, financing, cooperative programmes, regulatory compliance support and other crucial services. Extension officers must continuously be fully informed of these arrangements and be in the position to easily and effectively link and facilitate these services and support to his/her clients.   
  • Extension officers could still be quite effective if support programmes are designed intelligently with certain conditions attached which will lever planning and subsequent advisory and support by default. The learning experience that is gained with thorough farm and business planning is invaluable.  
  • Public Private Partnerships must further be enhanced especially in the form of commodity groupings, selected NGO’s and farmers’ organisations to fill all those gaps that have been identified on a provincial basis. Government’s financial support to these kinds of institutions should be based on merit and credentials. This should be determined by capacity and own resources as well as the real value-adding brought by such an entity regarding the required inputs and outcomes.  Government should refrain from an approach to appoint or support agencies that in essence are duplicating the work of officials. Extension officers should be challenged to be agriculturists with administrative duties and not administrators with agricultural duties. Consequently, this approach must strengthen, extend and support the arms of government to maximise synergy. However, these inputs will have to happen within specific conditions, agreements and reporting mechanisms. 
  • Government cannot cater for all enterprises because of the cost of extension. High value private sector enterprises should thus be encouraged to employ their own agricultural advisors with an overarching link and engagement with government still in place. 
  • A national extension policy should be inclusive by taking into consideration the unique circumstances of provinces and should provide opportunities for them to implement their situation specific models and strategies that would enhance their creative and innovative extension ideas.
  • South Africans in general are very creative and innovative but it seems that we don’t always manage and develop our innovations that well. Hence, innovation in agriculture must get much more attention. This is not about the funding of research and support of such institutions only, but it should be a more dedicated, elaborate, enabling, comprehensive structure, centre or initiative from where innovation can be bred, enhanced, nurtured, incentivised and the ultimate - even commercialised as an export product.  Such a facility should not look only at new technologies but should also cater for new farming models and systems like for example; the designing and development of an integrated business model for part time farmers in a cooperative where value adding is been done for targeted niche markets with an unique brand. 
  • (Innovation factory->products->extension/sales->application->progress)
A good idea is the oxygen of economies and extension is the communication of such innovations.

Click the image for a view of: The view from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture
The view from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture
Posted: 11/5/2012 (12:48:27 AM)


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