The Sunday Mail
Economists have previously argued that banks should fund farming programmes purely based on the viability of the programmes, rather than demand title deeds for urban properties from farmers. Command Agriculture has proved critics wrong in many respects.
A lot of critics of the land reform have always argued that A2 farmers are lazy people who just want to get free inputs and abuse them.
However, this year’s successful Command Agriculture scheme has proved them wrong.
Many farmers were contracted by Government to produce a minimum of five tonnes of maize per hectare, and have gone on to prove that given the right support and the right weather conditions, they can produce even higher yields.
Under the scheme, Government provided farmers with fuel, seed, fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
Farmers were classified into those with irrigation facilities and those growing under dry land conditions.
Those who managed to access inputs on time and had the necessary equipment have gone on to establish the contracted areas and are expecting good yields.
The area under maize this year jumped to 1,243,624 hectares from 773,968 ha last year; largely due to the programme.
As a result of this success, Government has since decided to fund winter wheat production, and to include soyabeans next season.
However, a few farmers faced challenges in securing inputs like seed, basal and top-dressing fertilisers on time and struggled to plant or top-dress their crops.
Government has definitely learnt a lesson and should address such challenges as it embarks on the wheat programme.
If farmers get the necessary support in the form of inputs and the Heavens open up as they did this year, it is possible for genuine farmers to produce as per contract.
The majority of farmers should be able to meet the minimum targets as set under Command Agriculture.
There are, of course, a few farmers who took more inputs than they could fully utilise, but failed dismally to deliver.
It should be easy for Government to scratch such farmers from future schemes.
There is also a number that failed to do the right thing at the right time, either out of ignorance or out of lack of equipment. Some farmers failed to control weeds because they could not apply the available herbicides on time as they did not have boom sprayers or simply did not know when to apply which herbicide at what time.
Some farmers fell victims to too much rain, and had their crops waterlogged.
In some of these cases, extension staff can help educate farmers on the correct agronomic practices.
However, the worst culprits remain those who registered to grow large tracts of land and yet only managed to plant a few hectares despite having collected all the necessary inputs.
It costs between US$800 and US$1 000 to produce a hectare of maize, depending on the level of inputs used.
Therefore, a farmer contracted to grow 20 hectares got inputs worth approximately US$16 000, while a farmer contracted to grow 50 hectares got about US$40 000 worth of inputs.
All this was done without these farmers having to provide any form of collateral.
Economists have previously argued that banks should fund farming programmes purely based on the viability of the programmes, rather than demand title deeds for urban properties from farmers.
Honestly, what does an urban property have to do with farming?
Private companies that have contracted farmers have done so hesitantly and, in some cases, provide inadequate inputs.
In such cases, farmers fail to achieve the desired yields.
Such problems have been encountered in the cotton sector where most farmers were only provided with a bag each of basal and top-dressing fertilisers per hectare.
With such low levels of support, farmers have failed to achieve high yields. Hence the whole cotton industry has experienced viability problems.
Government had to intervene over the past two years to fund the crop, and this has paid off as the area planted to cotton increased by 49 percent from 105 000 ha last year to 155 000 this year.
This year, the Government funded beneficiary farmers solely on the basis of agreed targets as well as an assessment of the farmer’s ability.
A team of technocrats then followed up to ensure that the farmers had ploughed the land, planted and applied the inputs.
Top-dressing fertiliser was only made available based on the stage of the crop and the area actually requiring top-dressing rather than listening to what farmers had to say.
This has worked well to a great extend.
Surely, private companies can adopt the same strategies and employ their own extension agents to monitor farmers and ensure they are on the right track.
It is, therefore, disheartening that local oil-expressing companies continue to moan about soyabeans’ low hectarage this year.
The area fell to 17,000 ha from the 29,730 ha planted last year as farmers opted to grow maize under Command Agriculture.
Many farmers out there wanted to grow soyabeans, but they did not have the necessary resources to do so.
These farmers are waiting eagerly for the same Government to provide soya bean inputs under the same Command Agriculture programme next year and if the rains are available, I bet you; there will be a massive response similar to this year’s maize programme.
Therefore, let us throw the challenge to these oil-expressing companies. Please come up with the necessary funding and support for local production.
It is not enough for these companies to talk about investing in heavy oil-expressing equipment without supporting the farmers who grow the product.
If they do that, we will not need the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to allocate resources to import cooking oil or soyabeans.
Whilst white commercial farmers received a lot of support from banks before independence, the same has not been extended to land reform beneficiaries.
A white farmer, who defaulted on a loan for whatever reason, would be given another opportunity, this time under strict supervision.
However, nowadays, banks rush to foreclose properties provided as collateral without providing another chance for those farmers to clear the loan through farming.
Many farmers have lost their properties to tobacco contractors who, in some cases, have demanded to take over farm operations, leaving the farmer stranded.
Some farmers have lost properties over ridiculous outstanding amounts that could have been easily cleared had they been given another chance to farm.
Worse still, once a farmer has defaulted, banks move on to charge exorbitant interest rates, chimbadzo chaicho.
The question is: why further penalise a farmer by charging him or her a penalty when he or she is struggling to recover from a mishap like a drought or water logging, circumstances that are beyond his or her control?
If anything, they should be charged a “mercy/compassion” rate during the recovery period.
Sadly, our Government has stood aside, watching whilst such chicanery takes place in the banking sector.
Farmers therefore welcome the initiatives of the RBZ to cap bank interest rates.
Land reform beneficiaries have also been caught up in the tug-of-war between banks and Government over the use of 99-year leases as collateral.
Banks continue to demand title deeds for urban properties as they refuse to accept A2 leases or even title deeds of indigenous-owned farms.
Even the 100 percent Government-owned Agribank refuses indigenous-owned farm title deeds as collateral.
Government, on the other hand, has also failed to resolve that long-standing difference with bankers over the acceptance of 99-year leases.
Very few farmers have 99-year leases.
Those without title to urban properties have, therefore, failed to borrow for their farming operations, and end up just scratching on the surface.
A farmer who tries to farm without adequate inputs can never be successful.
This year, though, all farmers got a chance to farm with support from Government.
There can never be better empowerment than the opportunity Command Agriculture has provided.
One can only pray that the farmers will not embarrass everyone by side-marketing produce or failing to repay loans.
They should prove critics of the Land Reform Programme wrong by filling the country’s grain silos.