Bring back experienced farmers

By John Robertson

IN his recent monetary policy statement, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono urged the nation and the government to ensure that the coming agricultural season becomes a success to

prevent a repeat of the serious consequences of this year’s food deficits.


The governor, his government colleagues and the nation would do well to study Bruce Gemmill’s article in the Zimbabwe Independent of October 7.


In his article, Gemmill makes many important points very clearly. Among these are the simple facts that small-scale farming should never have been expected to feed our growing urban population and the uncertainties involved in farming call for the delivery of vastly more capital, knowledge and commitment than small-scale producers are prepared, or able, to supply.


Now we learn from the long-range weather forecasters that we might have very poor rains in the next few seasons. Bad seasons are usually devastating to small operators, but experienced farmers have always been more able to take this kind of season in their stride.


Considering the food security issues and also the foreign earnings we used to bring in from export commodities, one fact now stands out: we urgently need to get experienced people back onto the land.


Zimbabwe is a drought-prone tropical country that has a fragile ecology and is subject to a wide selection of tropical diseases, pests and other hazards. When the risks from financial, marketing and distribution uncertainties are added, the reasons become clear why more than usually talented people are needed in the industry.


Gono’s generous allocation of funding to the producers of various crops highlights another belief, which is that money can make up for the lack of other essentials, or every problem can be solved if enough money is thrown at it. Hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money have been offered in the form of productivity enhancement facilities and hundreds of billions more to fund tobacco, wheat, maize, sorghum and livestock producers.


The former large-scale farmers used their land as collateral and sourced their funds from banks, not from taxpayers. Being market-driven and highly responsive to performance, the system itself rewarded the successful. But the same system expelled those who were less successful, so even the best farmers had to commit themselves to a great deal of hard work to ensure success and to repay outstanding loans.


By comparison, the resettlement farmers of today in Zimbabwe suffer from major disadvantages. By taking the land out of the market and allocating it for nothing to resettlement farmers, government has made its collateral value fall to nothing.


So the land is not “bankable”. Its holders also have no security of tenure. Land that has been given for nothing can also be taken away for nothing.


So the new farmers have neither the means nor the incentive to invest in the land’s longer-term productivity. These farmers have been rendered almost powerless to preserve the value of the land given to them. This will ensure that good land will soon be incapable of production beyond subsistence levels.


Even proponents of land redistribution concede that these basic flaws in the government’s policies will lead to massive land degradation and that if no steps are taken to remedy the flaws, the land will become progressively less productive.


Without a realistic chance of developing either their own potential, or that of their land, hopes will soon die away that the new farmers will continue striving for success.


But in contrast to the commercial system, that will not mean that they will lose their land. Provided that non-performing holders remain politically acceptable, the land is likely to remain under their control indefinitely.


This is because we now have a patronage system under which poor farmers cannot be displaced by better farmers. This is the very antithesis of empowerment. The idea has impoverished many countries in the past and it is in the process of impoverishing Zimbabwe now.


The system chosen sets the limits to what the farmers can achieve, not the race of the farmer. East German farmers performed not nearly as well as West German farmers before reunification. Today, South Korean farmers easily outperform North Korean farmers. The respective level of prosperity in these cases was, and is, a function of the operational system used. In Zimbabwe we have deliberately dismantled the system that works.


Commercial farmers are good because the system stretches them. With constant pressure on them to meet financial obligations, they have to invest carefully in their own skills and in physical schemes that improve their prospects of delivering good crops.


Their object was always to leave as little to chance as possible because they might otherwise lose everything. Now they have lost everything anyway. But the real loser is Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe’s commercial farming industry should have been viewed as an industry as well as a carefully balanced and easily damaged system. Our current predicament and our increasingly frightening prospects are living proof of both the fragility and the importance of the sector.


Zimbabwe’s population was able to increase dramatically in the past because of the success of this industry. And because of its growth, the same population came to depend upon agriculture’s continued success many years ago. We have responded in exactly the wrong way to the country’s world-record-breaking population growth during the past century.


Government’s policies appear to be based on an assumption that highly productive farming practices are instinctive, but that it can make up for bad luck with the weather or other natural hazards by offering an endless stream of subsidies.


Sadly, the simple truth is that we cannot afford them. Bring back property rights and large-scale commercial farming and we won’t need them.


* John Robertson is a Harare-based economic consultant.