Grow Farm

Emerging farmers, challenges and the impacts on conservation: a Drylands perspective

By Cobus Theron and Bonnie Schumann

The Drylands Conservation Programme as part of its GEF 5, Karoo Sustainable Land Management project, is currently initiating interactions with two groups of emerging farmers in both the Northern and Western Cape.

This article presents a brief overview of some of the challenges faced by emerging farmers and how they impact on sustainable land management and conservation on farms.

The article needs to be read in the context of the rapidly changing situation in respect of land restitution and potential expropriation without compensation. While we cannot capture all of the facets of a very complicated situation we do wish to highlight some pertinent points.


The first challenge is that none of these farmers have title to the land. Both groups of farmers we work with farm on government or municipal lands subject to an agreement. From a farming perspective, lack of title effectively results in an inability to loan money against the land. It may come as a surprise to the man on the street that most farmers routinely use loans to finance their farming activities. This is due to the fact that farms typically do not yield a steady income throughout the year. From a conservation perspective the lack of ownership has an even more dramatic impact. Lack of title may at best cause a hesitancy to invest in the maintenance of ecological infrastructure and at worst may lead to unsustainable practices such as overgrazing. Not owning the farm and having uncertainty of tenure means that people are unlikely to invest in the farms or to pursue long term farming practices and goals. Sustainable farming in the Karoo is a long-term game.

Secondly, in most cases the amount of hectares that each emerging farmer has access to is drastically less than what is considered a commercially viable farm in the Karoo. Typically grazing capacity in the Karoo is about one head of sheep per six Hectares. If we assume, conservatively that you need to generate R 400 000 turnover (excluding wool) per annum, you will need to sell about 20 % of your flock. At R 2000 per sheep it means you will have to own 1000 sheep and about 6000 ha to keep them all.

Most of the emerging farmers we are working with operate on less than 1000 ha with some having access to about 3000 ha. Economically this means that these farmers can never be much more than small scale or subsistence farmers and that they will never earn sufficiently from farming to better their situations. Small farms result in a vicious cycle where maintenance costs, including fencing and provision of water outstrip income.  From a conservation perspective the chances of overutilization of the veld or the likelihood of farmers engaging in exploitative activities such as poaching or sand-mining increases when farming cannot provide enough income.

Thirdly, farmers have been allocated land without appropriate training, access to networks or resources. This means that emerging landowners lack skills, which other farmers have received from generational sources, and when they get stuck they don’t know who to approach for advice.  Lack of knowledge also means that unsustainable suggestions from beneficiaries or outsiders are entertained without full appreciation of the impact. From a conservation point of view, the lack of knowledge may have a severe impact on ecosystem services and species.  Poor farming practices affect the veld, in turn this impacts on ecosystem services which impacts on overall farming productivity. If the cycle is not addressed farms become unable to sustain the farming activities or the species occurring on these farms.

Lastly, due to the inadequate hectares available to each farmer and diverse farming visions, a major challenge is conflict and a lack of cooperation between emerging landowners themselves. This is a major obstacle as almost all strategies to improve the situation on these farms requires close cooperation between emerging landowners, particularly those sharing the available land.

Road Forward

Whilst the challenges experienced paint a complicated picture, emerging farmers present a great opportunity to expand conservation. Given the direction in which our country is moving more emerging farmers might be settled on the land and their effective control over land will most likely expand. In this context and from a conservation perspective, we have to work with emerging landowners and assist them to deal with the challenges they face. Not doing so will not only be socially irresponsible but will also be a great disservice to habitats and species in South Africa.

Emerging landowners and their situation on the land have certain attributes that provide unique conservation opportunities.

Thirst for knowledge – Emerging landowners we have dealt with are deeply aware of their skills shortages and are desperate for training. Our work with communities has shown that many of the training needs are essential life skills such as financial literacy. As conservation organisations these are needs we can easily address though leveraging our networks. Our assistance here will not only provide value but will also allow us to develop social capital with communities.

Need for support – emerging farmers need support and extension services. In remote areas such as the Northern Cape, agricultural extension services, or for that matter ANY extension services, are a rare commodity. In many cases conservation organisation can bridge this need or leverage their networks to fill the gap. Many of our interactions show that emerging farmers are wary of outsiders. Extension visits represent opportunities to build trust.

An effective management framework or system also needs to be implement. Initial interactions with these farmers exposed a lot of uncertainty, lack of management plans and no consideration for conservation or sustainable land management. An unrealistic numbers of beneficiaries, is also resulting in low (or no) profit yield as well us unhappiness between beneficiaries who are actively work on the farms and others who benefit without any contributions.

Need to diversify – since most emerging land owners will farm areas that are too small to allow graduation to commercial farm scale there will be a need to make extra income. This represents unique space where conservation organisations can enter and collaborate to further the green economy by looking at environmentally sustainable opportunities which can be pursued by farmers and their families. This diversification can also provide a sustainable income during severe drought.

A common visioncurrently there are different opinions between landowners on how to manage the farms they control. This disagreement is enhanced by the challenges described above. As conservationists we need to play a role in creating a common vision that will create more unity among emerging farmers.

The Land Reform agenda is one of the most important issues facing our country and conservation. Civil society role players such as EWT and others have to do their bit to ensure that the collective outcome that is just, equitable and Sustainable. Failure of Government and role-players to create a holistic approach in respect of emerging farmers and commercial farmers will ultimately have ruinous economic and ecological consequences.

Source: EWT

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