Command agric will not work

Just when you thought you had seen it all, you get this new animal on the street in Zimbabwe called “Command Agriculture”. This Government has an amazing penchant for deciding on a course of action and then announcing it as if it was a new law and expecting the new programme or strategy to solve the problem.

By Eddie Cross

First you create the problem; in this case it is the transfer, by force, of commercial farms from their legal, rightful owners, to a politically connected minority for nothing, incurring as a consequence a legal obligation to pay compensation to the former owners before taking over title rights. The new settlers, whatever you call them, are handed occupation rights to the farms and free use of the assets, but without security or title rights.

After 15 years and following a 70% decline in production, you revisit the farms and discover that the great majority have been stripped of assets, are now abandoned and derelict. They are unable to borrow the funds required for normal cropping purposes and when assisted in the recent past, they have simply sold their inputs for cash and done nothing on the farms. So now we have the solution — Stalin like, we will tell the farmers what we want from them, provide the required funding and then deduct from the output the costs of the inputs leaving the farmers with a surplus that they can use themselves.

When I heard the Press Conference at which this grand plan was outlined I think I heard the Minister of Finance & Economic Development say that all that was needed was for 2000 farms to each rehabilitate 200 hectares of irrigation and then plant crops on the land. Hey presto: they indicated that is 400 000 hectares of irrigated land. At the height of our commercial farming system we had 287 000 hectares under irrigation — some of it on large scale irrigated estates in the lowveld and the rest on commercial farms who then used this capacity to mitigate against drought and to produce tobacco, soybeans, wheat and maize.

The programme was announced in July — four months before planting time for the main summer crops. At the time I doubt if we could have put 10% of this target under irrigation because the basic infrastructure simply no longer exists — pipelines vandalised and removed, pump stations no longer working, electricity transformers and power lines vandalised and in many cases stolen.

A clear indication of this is in the wheat sector — in 1997 we produced 300 000 tonnes off a 100 000 hectares of winter irrigation. This winter I doubt that we will reap even 5% of that total, despite government subsidies, high prices and State pressure.

But we continue to make announcements — just this past week Ministers were on the stump announcing that 400 tonnes of maize seed is available for distribution and companies were asking for help with imports of raw materials to produce 400 000 tonnes of fertilizer. They stated that these inputs would be made available to those farmers who were going to participate in “Command Agriculture”. No indication of how they were going to pay for the inputs? The idea that each farmer would be required to pay for the inputs first when they sold their crops to the market place is fair enough — but the whole thing needs funding from the start and none is available.

Command agriculture has never worked. It was tried on a massive scale in the Soviet Union and in China only to be abandoned as a complete failure, but only after tens of millions of people had died of hunger and malnutrition. Whole generations were devastated. Agriculture only works when individual farmers have a sense of ownership and pride, the phrase that the footsteps of the farmer is the best fertilizer, remains true universally and Zimbabwe will be no different.

Agriculture only works when risk capital is invested in the venture, the capital is then managed by a firm or individual who has full responsibility for the liability and if they fail in the enterprise the consequence will be the loss of their property — probably valued at two or three times the total value of their loans. The risk is very great — you cannot insure against drought or floods and hail and therefore collateral security is fundamental to the industry.

But it is also more than that — it is the promise of profit that drives successful agriculture. You can work it out for yourself, a hectare of maize that has been properly fertilised, planted on time, weeded and sprayed for any insect damage and then irrigated when dry conditions prevailed, can easily yield 15 tonnes a hectare today. More if GMO varieties are grown, sold at present prices that is a total output of $4 500 a hectare. Total costs would not be more than $1 800 — a gross profit of $2 700 per hectare. On 200 hectares that is $540 000 dollars for nine months work.

Let me tell you, that is a fantastic return — even with the risks and farming remains a good business to be in, if you can do it properly. What many do not appreciate is that it is a business, like any other business and if you do not manage it properly, you lose, and 20% of all farming enterprises fail every year. That is why you need a vibrant market for land and security of title.

Farmers; no matter who they are or where they come from, whatever their colour, race or creed; are all intensely individual in their approach to life and business. Anyone who has run an agricultural firm, bank or marketing agency will tell you that they are the most ornery of characters. They are the toughest constituency I have ever come across and anyone who tries to give them orders, no matter how well intentioned, is doomed to be disappointed.

So what to expect from the latest madness in Zimbabwe? The answer is not much. I see no sign of land preparation on the farms I drive past in my travels across the country. The crop cycle that we need to monitor this process against is something like this:

Land preparation in May or June.

Purchase of all inputs with delivery to the farms in July and August.

Final disc preparation/weed killers for planting in September.

Planting in October/November (latest by the 15th November).

Top dressing and spraying during the season with hand or tractor cultivation.
Reaping from May onwards.

Drying and delivery.

We are way behind schedule already and I see no possibility of catching up. If the Minister is still talking about asking the Reserve Bank for the funds to import raw materials for the manufacture of fertilizer, then we are simply not going to be able to supply our farmers with the required inputs on time.

And this is for the most simple of the crops in our long list of basic needs. All the other crops are more complex and demanding. Issuing commands to our new farmers is not going to yield results.

Cross is an economist and Bulawayo South MP (MDC-T). These New Perspectives articles are co-ordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society. E-Mail: kadenge.zes@gmail.com and cell +263 772 382 852.