Land’s end: No jobs, no food in the farming sector
Anatomy of a disaster in the making, with 55,000 out of work since January and crops failing due to drought
A tanking economy, falling crop prices, drought, land expropriation, failing road infrastructure and high labour costs are killing jobs in SA’s agricultural sector, with 55,000 people put out of work since January.
Those who have lost their jobs include farmers, permanent workers and vulnerable seasonal labourers. Agricultural experts warn that job losses and the shutting down of farms potentially threaten SA’s food security.The worst affected provinces, according to Stats SA’s latest quarterly labour force survey, are the Western Cape and the Free State where 27,000 and 20,000 people have lost work respectively since January. The Northern Cape and North West each lost 4,000 jobs.
Limpopo saw an additional 27,000 people employed, while Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Gauteng recorded nominal job increases. Agricultural experts are concerned, however, that many of these jobs are seasonal.For Free State dairy farmer Warie Cilliers, whose farm is near Bultfontein, letting go his workers has been hard.
“It’s one of the toughest decisions I have had to make. We have switched to maize and kept people where we can. I tried to find work for my workers with neighbouring farmers, but everyone is shutting down.”
He said over the past couple of years eight dairy farmers had moved off their land because it was too expensive to farm.
Between 2009 and 2018 the number of Free State dairy farmers dropped from 929 to 183, according to the Milk Producers Organisation.
Carl Opperman, CEO of Agri-Western Cape, said since October 2017 the province had lost an estimated 50,000 agriculture jobs.
“While statistics show the job losses since January are 27,000, they don’t include the estimated losses from last year. The majority of those who lost their jobs are seasonal workers, who are the most vulnerable,” said Opperman.
“In harvesting season thousands of workers would have received production bonuses, which they rely on to pay school fees and look after their families. But because the season was poor many weren’t employed.”
Opperman said the job losses could be attributed to the devastating drought.“The drought has in some sectors seen planting drop by 50%, with water having to be diverted to the most high-value crops such as apples and pears.”
He said the concern now was the future water situation, “which will determine how many jobs will be created”.
Jack Armour, a Free State Agriculture Union researcher, said investors had lost confidence in SA’s agricultural sector. “The lack of policy certainty around land expropriation, coupled with droughts and low maize and dairy prices, has seen jobs shed.”
Armour said when the Montic Dairy company went into business rescue two years ago, it affected 40 dairy farms.“Each farmer retrenched roughly six workers. That equates to nearly 240 people who were suddenly without work. While that might have been two years ago the effect is still being felt now with people, who lost their jobs then, unable to find work now. Those who have had jobs until now are at risk of losing the work that they have.”
Armour said another major effect on farming jobs was the province’s poor road infrastructure. “It’s becoming too costly for transport companies to collect crops and for farmers to get their goods to the market. The cost of the damage caused by potholes on vehicles is astronomical.
“People don’t think much of a few potholes but when it’s your entire road system it becomes a different issue. If companies won’t collect produce, and farmers can’t get their goods to markets, jobs are lost.”Armour added that the threat of land expropriation made farmers hesitant to employ more people.
Agricultural economist Johan Willemse said droughts had played a significant role in job losses, especially in the Western Cape and Free State, which are SA’s maize baskets.
“Although there are good crops now, due to the four-year drought farmers are behind on the repayment of their loans because of low incomes – with banks no longer wanting to grant further finance. Banks are pushing farmers to sell their assets, which has seen some cattle farmers selling off large numbers of their herds.”Willemse said farmers were also reluctant to plant because of concerns that their land would be expropriated. “The collective knock-on effect of all of this is job losses.” He said the biggest effect of the job losses was in rural towns “which are dying”.Vuyo Mahlathi, president of the African Farmers Association, said a new approach to address job losses was imperative. She said they would meet in August with AgriSA and the Transvaal Agricultural Union to discuss, among other crises, job losses.
“In the end, if we want to save jobs we need to increase the country’s production base. Markets need to be properly opened, especially for emerging and small-scale farmers. Without market access farmers cannot sell their goods and expand their operations,” said Mahlathi.
“The lack of finance is something which urgently needs to be addressed with commitment from banks to help sustain the industry.”