What We Learned in South Africa

This Business of Farming

A new appreciation for a stable political and business climate

Published on: December 31, 2013

Late last year Farm Futures and Trump Tours partnered to take 16 U.S. farmers to South Africa, where we visited farms producing a wide array of crops, dairy, fruits, vegetables, wine and livestock. My South African colleague Lindi Van Rooyen, who writes for South Africa's Farmer's Weekly, came along for some of our farm stops. After the visit she asked some of the Americans what they thought of their experience. Here's a handful of responses:

What were the biggest differences and similarities between South African and American farms? "The U.S. uses larger equipment and less labor," notes Drew Stabler, Maryland crop farmer. "As for similarities, the producers in our country and theirs both desire to produce food, feed and fiber as efficiently as possible." Adds Vince Hostetler, Kansas cattle producer: "The two biggest differences are labor (cost and labor laws) and security (personal security and long-term farm security). The biggest similarities were machinery and technology."

Americans Roger Bommer and Bert Blackard (left) talk to South African herd manager Rob Slater amid a sea of cows outside Cape Town.
Americans Roger Bommer and Bert Blackard (left) talk to South African herd manager Rob Slater amid a sea of cows outside Cape Town.

What was your general impression of South African agriculture? "From what I saw, South Africa had good highways and seemed to have good infrastructure, which is different than Brazil," observes Alvie Fountain, a Washington, grape and grain farmer who went to Brazil on a Farm Futures tour earlier in 2013. "I saw that the whites ran everything and the blacks did the work.  And I doubt if that will change even in 4 or 5 generations, where in America, we have the same thing with Mexicans and agriculture but in America, some of the Mexicans are actually getting farms, trucking companies, and support companies. 

"I feel that in three or four generations we will have minorities owning some of the farms and having some of the wealth different than what I saw in South Africa," he adds. "In America, you either adopt our work ethic and do things our way, or you will always be at the low end of the economic scale." 

What regarding South African agriculture made the biggest impression? "South Africa can produce an abundance of food, as long as the political forces are a stabilizing influence," says Stabler. Adds Fountain: "I was impressed with some of the South African agriculture. They had modern equipment to farm what I feel was some tough ground.  The three big farms we visited in the North were tough ground or tough weather conditions.  Yet, these people were able to farm around the tough soils and make a living. 

"The wine ground was really nice ground and they got good production, and they seemed to have good marketing," he adds. "The packers were the most impressive in how they worked around many difficulties. They were as modern as we are in the states, if not more modern.

"One of the big problems with Ag in South Africa is the big populations with money are miles away, so it costs money to move the goods.  Most of Africa does not have big disposable incomes, therefore they cannot pay big prices for goods.  The packers and the wine people were trying to ship to Europe but the distance was a deterrent."

What was your most noteworthy memory of the trip? "The general public thinking frozen beef is not considered fresh, so the feedlot managers wormed the employees instead of the cattle," says Hostetler. "It was a new concept to me and one I never would have tied to South Africa."

Several farmers had been on other international farm tours, and the South African experience helped reaffirm their appreciation for the business environment back in the states.

"The best insight I've had from these trips is the stability the U.S. affords our agriculture sector:  Interest rates, infrastructure, crop Insurance and farm programs," says Hostetler. "From this trip I learned that no matter where you are in the world, farmers take pride in what they do."