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Agronomists dwarfs in huge robes

KUDAKWASHE GWABAYANI
I HAVE often avoided writing in first person for the simple reason that most of the views that I would be sharing would be collective and would be common experiences among many farmers who then come to a consensus that this point holds more water than the other.

However in this epistle, I will be sharing my personal experiences in the short but otherwise exciting journey of farming and will take full responsibility of the backlash that the article is most likely going to generate.

This emotional outpouring was triggered by Coalition of Agricultural Graduates of Zimbabwe’s (Cagoz) call to a meeting last week where they were conducting interviews.

Of particular interest in their invitation, Cagoz made this statement, “There will be discussions on managers’ code of conduct and disruptive farmer tendencies that farmers must refrain from.”

It is quite shocking that Cagoz views its employers as disruptive.

I wish to start by going Biblical in the hope that this article ends up in Frank Dickson Kubvakacha’s hands, who is the founder and chairperson of Cagoz so that in his next meeting or communication he may remind his constituency that even in the Bible, in Genesis to be precise, Joseph was made governor for interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams.

Simply put, at times the dream does not have to be yours for you to be successful, it can be someone else’s but all you have to do is to use your God-given talent to interpret other people’s dreams and you will be rewarded.

Considering the fact that farming is capital intensive, when someone has put their money onto something — especially in Africa where loyalty, trust and honesty are rare to find — they will be looking over your shoulder to see what you will be doing.

What Cagoz should train its members is how to circumvent and deal with disruptive farmer tendencies instead of asking farmers (who are not their members) to refrain from certain behaviours.

It would be a miscarriage of justice for Cagoz to rush to discuss “disruptive farmer tendencies that farmers must refrain from”, without fully examining why most farmers have lost confidence in their profession. There are many farmers who have had enough of the excuses and are going it alone and doing so well.

It is quite worrying that the same agronomist who would have told you to plant a crop in a certain field will tell you in two weeks’ time that the sandy soils are not compatible with the peas that we planted and you will be left asking yourself why the “agriculturalist” did not see it in the first place before putting down 100kg of seed and 500kg Compound C that these soils are not good?

I am not saying that there are no good agronomists out there, of course there are but unfortunately you rarely get the full package.

I have worked with a total of seven agronomists and the experience can make movie script writers green with envy.

Scenario 1
I had gotten myself a lucrative potato seed contract from one of the leading agriculture institute in the country. Whilst it was easy to get a financier, I needed an agronomist with at least 5 years in potato production and managed to get one. He was white.

When we were about to plant he said that it is impossible to plant 3 hectares without a potato planter.

I had personally been to many farmers where I had witnessed with my own eyes farmers planting 6 hectares using manual labour.

And this was being done in four days!

We agreed to let him go.

Scenario 2
We then managed to get another agronomist who when he started work in November said it was too risky to plant potatoes in the rainy season. We waited until March and by that time he had managed to convince my partners in the deal that the project is not viable. Up to now I cannot help  but wonder why he took the job offer if the project was not viable.

Scenario 3
The following, I wanted to do a peas project after having secured a European market and engaged an agronomist who had just been retrenched by Nhimbe Fresh Exports. The guy was very sharp. He did budgets, activity plans, spray programmes and everything in a single day. We then planned on the planting day and agreed we would buy inputs a day before. Believe it or not, the guy did not show up. He stopped picking my calls until we went out of season for the crop and had to postpone it to the following year.

Scenario 4
The following year we engaged another agronomist for the peas project. The germination was astonishing, 95%. There was no reason for gap filling. Despite operational challenges like the breakdown in the irrigation system, the peas reached maturity with a good stand. In fact it was a beautiful crop.

However it seems like that is how far the agronomist could go. He was clueless about harvesting and taking the crop to the market.

Some of the peas over matured in the field while a good amount was lost while packaging for the market. Whilst he was good with crop management, he faltered on post-harvest.

Scenario 5
The following year I had to work with another one who always had  low germinations.  He had this unusual planting method which left a lot of gaps. He had to do gap-filling two to three times with every crop.

But once it germinated he would take real good care of the crop. Post-harvest he was super!

He was very particular about preparing his crop for the market; he was very smart and would weigh everything before leaving the farm.

Living and working together

The question that needs an urgent answer now is should a farmer get an agronomist?

The answer to this is if you cannot afford it, then don’t. But if you can afford to, do it with hindsight that your intellectual input is still required.

These days because of changing trends in the vegetable market an agronomist is especially important to select compatible and acceptable chemicals. For example, while rogor has been banned there are other chemicals like dimeothate that have ably replaced it with the same efficiency or ingredients. Agronomists know these.

At times it becomes necessary that the agronomist be on a pay-per-visit contract.

In the event that one requires a permanent one, yield targets must be set and the farmer does not need to sit on his laurels and expect results from the farm.

My neighbour Shepherd Dadi relieved his agronomist of his duties after he failed dismally to nurse 30 000 cabbages seeds despite having put up netting structures and buying nursery trays.

He got a paltry 2 300.

Unfortunately, at law they say “the loss should lie where it falls”. Farmers are left licking wounds without recourse because you cannot make them pay for your losses.

There are so  many examples of farmer frustrations  and very soon farmers will revert to traditional means of farming after realising that the advice they will be getting from agronomists is not helping much.

They will end up relying on the internet realising that the real agronomists went abroad leaving the country with dwarfs in huge robes.

Gwabanayi is a practising journalist and a farmer in his own right. — 0772 865 703 or gwabanayi@gmail.com

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