AFGRI CEO Chris Venter talks all-things agriculture as the sector descends on Bothaville for the Nampo Harvest Day Agricultural Trade Exhibition

BUSINESS DAY TV: The Free State dorp of Bothaville is firmly on the map this week as the who’s who of the agri-industry congregate for the 51st Nampo Harvest Day Agricultural Trade Exhibition.

So what’s it all about? And in an environment where land ownership is part of the radical economic transformation agenda, has the event become politicised. We’re joined on the line now from Bothaville, by Chris Venter, CEO of AFGRI.

Chris, someone in the office today described the event as the Woodstock for farmers. What exactly are we looking at here?

CHRIS VENTER: Nampo is probably the main event or one of the bigger agricultural expos that is held in the southern hemisphere. Every year it is getting bigger. You have all the new technology, all the new equipment, everything that the farmer would like to do and to look at to increase his yields. So it’s great for them to have it all in the one area.

BDTV: What’s the mood like this year after last year’s drought? Because while in the north of the country we have seen some respite from the drought conditions, in the south of the country it’s still pretty precarious. So many farmers are still in a dangerous situation at this stage.

CV: It is true. Farmers are always looking long term in any event. Farmers, over many years, have got to understand that farming is part of nature and that you’re always dependent on nature, so they therefore always look longer term. So when they come to an event like Nampo they can follow areas where they can improve their own production yields, where they can improve their trans-farm workers, and get to a point where they can do more with what they have.

Even in drought scenarios, there are always new ideas in terms of what you can do with little water, and can you do something with getting away with production of different varieties. So for the farmers it is still very applicable, even though the current scenarios in the different areas are still very difficult. But it is still very applicable for the farmers’ operations.

BDTV: Where you’ve got these conversations underway around how to grow the sector, how the sector becomes more productive moving forward, how do you marry that with something like economic transformation, which is top of the agenda? Does that necessarily come hand-in-hand with land reform?

CV: Yes, without a doubt. We actually had a couple of questions over the past week in terms of discussions and conversations on how do you look at transformation and economic transformation in agriculture. And the one thing that is exciting this year is that there are discussions with all different parties, whether it be government or commercial farm operations, or even an agricultural business like ourselves, there’s a general approach that’s saying we need to take hands and work on this together.

But there’s also an understanding that we need to grow the environment, so as you grow agriculture you obviously need to bring in young farmers and to create partnerships where they need to get help. So, in general willingness and goodwill to make sure that we can transform agriculture, and that was a very positive approach that we’ve had over the last few days.

BDTV: We have had the Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana speaking there as well and talking about the need for every piece of arable land to be used to produce something or to enhance development, but also that more clarity is needed around land reform and land restitution, and that is very much top of the agenda at the moment. Is there concern amongst farmers that they could lose their land?

CV: There is a general concern in terms of historical approaches on land and land that has been bought up. There was a discussion on one of the panel discussions on Monday night referring to over 4,000 farms that have not yet been transferred or have not been utilised in government. Those are some of the approaches where the general approach is, we need to look at land and land transformation, it should be a holistic approach in terms of making sure that whatever arable land there is, we need to use that. Those pieces of land should be put back into production and, generally, also when you look at land you should also look at it longer term in terms of food security and how you bring that food security from a 50-to 60-year point of view, back to the utilisation of current land developed today.

BDTV: Talk us through empowerment in the sector because, of course, for land to go on to become commercially viable, skills development has to happen in tandem. So what’s happening on that front, bringing more of the emerging black farming-class into the fray?

CV: There are actually a couple of ... there are many actions in terms of approaches from different companies. From AFGRI, I speak of our own approach where we support farmers, individual farmers, but also farms in the inland community. So our approach is to say that you have farmers in communities from which you can tap all those farmers with yield increase and usability of land, then you can actually create a sustainable ... sustainable economic activity within that community. So there are actually a lot of operations that are looking at that.

But the discussions today was around how to bring together all those different options from different parties, and even the Land Bank who have shown that their approaches have been very successful where they’ve tied in commercial farmers with young farmers and have had success with that over many years. That is a model we’ve seen working, is that you may have a neighbour that is a commercial farmer at this point in time helping an upcoming farmer ... and the success built through that is actually quite amazing.

BDTV: Of course, those discussions continue for another two days as Nampo does continue until Friday.

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