Farm Representation

When I joined a major farming enterprise after leaving University and started work as an economist, I found myself dealing with the Commercial Farmers Union.

Eddie Cross

That, together with the Tobacco Association represented the large-scale commercial farmers in this country. They occupied 16 million hectares of land and employed about 350,000 workers and their families (about 2 million people) and produced about 20 per cent of the GDP, 50 per cent of all exports. In all they were about 6 000 farmers and many were very large scale.

The farmers were well organised and their activities were funded by small levies on their sales, collected at the point of sale. Both organisations occupied multi storied head offices in Harare and employed well trained staff in a wide range of professions. They acted as lobby groups for their Members interests and negotiated prices with the main offtakers. They financed research into production techniques and crop varieties, they organised farm co-operatives and companies that handled their inputs and gave them credit on supplies. They even funded regular visits abroad to see the market conditions for themselves in the major demand centres.

They were a very powerful lobby and no politician in Rhodesia could ignore a call from the President of the different groups involved. When Independence came in 1980, these organisations were apprehensive about what lay ahead, but rapidly established that so long as they produced the goods, they would be left alone. In fact, in the first 20 years of Independence the one sector of the economy that grew consistently was the commercial farming industry. Not that there were no changes. In the first 17 years nearly 4 million hectares of their 16 million hectares at Independence was purchased by the State on a willing seller/buyer basis and resettled. The total number of farmers involved declined and the racial ratio gradually shifted until by 2000, white farmers were about 3 600 and new black farmers about 1 200.

That all changed when the Movement for Democratic Change threatened the hegemony of the ruling Party, Zanu PF in 2000. The commercial farmers and the 600 000 voters on their farms had supported the opposition and the decision was made to remove them as a block, from the scene. In the next 5 years the industry collapsed by 70 per cent. The CFU and the ZTA shrank to the point where they could barely maintain themselves. The multi storied head offices were sold, the massive commercial holdings were also sold off and the proceeds distributed to their members.

Today the CFU and the ZTA are a tiny shadow of what they were, they no longer represent a significant number of growers, even though the tobacco industry has largely recovered and the rest of agriculture is slowly putting its affairs in order. In their place has emerged several organisations which claim to represent farmers, the largest is the Zimbabwe National Farmers Union. But for a long time, these organisations have depended on donor support and they have not developed either a significant membership or structure. They have also not developed the essential feature required of all such organisations, that of a democratically elected leadership which changes regularly.

Do farmers need a powerful and effective lobby which will represent their interests to those who govern their affairs? I would think that this is self-evident. The question is how to create such institutions and how should they be funded and organised? The industry today comprises 20 million hectares under communal ownership, 8 million hectares under a form of private ownership following the land reform program, a handful, perhaps 300 or so of the former large scale commercial farmers that have survived and 4 million hectares of land under agribusiness occupation in large Estates. Theoretically, still no security of tenure, but they are generally now secure and protected.

In terms of numbers, we have perhaps 700 000 small scale peasant farmers, 200 000 small scale commercial farmers and 20 000 larger scale and agribusiness enterprises. A real mixed bag representing very disparate interests. The bigger the enterprise, the more they have access to those in power and think that they can handle their own interests and needs for contact and influence. It is the smaller farmers that need representation and organisation. The question is how to establish such institutions so that they can represent their members interests effectively.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are a few fundamental principles that the formation of such an organisation should follow. These are: –

  • It must represent all farmers irrespective of their size.
  • It must provide for specialist interests in the form of the commodities being produced by the industry.
  • It must be national and should not represent any particular grouping, either racial, tribal or political.
  • It must be well financed and self-supporting.
  • It must support a professional staff with experience and capacity.

The existing Unions have been trying to get together and form some sort of umbrella organisation for some time and all such efforts have failed. Self interest plays the usual role in this process and unless that is addressed it is unlikely that we will see progress. In my view the only viable entity that can be used as a base going forward is the ZNFU. I also think that the Ministry of Agriculture holds the key to this process which it can do quite simply by saying to the industry that they will: –

  • Only recognise and consult a single National Farmers Union when it comes to issues affecting the industry. This would force the multitude of such institutions that exist today to get together and thrash out how to go forward. This should include drafting a new Constitution for the Union and holding a Congress of farmer leaders nominated by District to elect leadership.
  • Set up a system of commodity based levies that will finance individual Commodity Associations. These individual Associations to have their own leadership elected and making up the National Council of the Union and contributing to the National Union to support the costs involved.

The individual Commodity Associations would represent Tobacco, Maize and Small Grains, Sugar, Dairy, Beef, Small Stock, Poultry and Horticulture. All farmers would automatically become members of the Union when they sold their crops and paid levies to their respective Associations. In doing so they would become Members of the Union and the specific Commodity Associations that they represented.

Farmer financed and based research was always better managed and more productive and all the various Government Research establishments should be designated for specific industries and the farmers obliged to co-finance their activities. In the field of labour relations, the Union would become the Employers Organisation while the different Unions in each industry and in general agriculture would be registered as Unions and participate in negotiations on wage and working conditions.

The new long term lease that is about to be adopted for farm activity and land ownership in farming Districts is going to be a real game changer and I think Agriculture will again become a significant player nationally. Its time the farmers got organised.

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