December 23, 2008 - Future of Farming

Since traveling to Zimbabwe in 1999, the country has held a special place in my heart. I keep in touch with a contact in Harare by e-mail and subscribe to a daily Zimbabwe news briefing service ( Here’s a quote from a recent news posting:

"Zimbabwe's economic collapse began when its agricultural exports shrunk after
Mugabe started seizing land from 4 500 productive white commercial farmers in
2000. The "new" farmers have failed year after year, despite massive state
subsidies, to grow even 20 percent of Zimbabwe's pre-land grab harvests.”

I would change the italic emphasis – it should be the new “farmers.” Farming does not mean waving your hands over the soil and effortlessly producing corn or wheat or a healthy herd of dairy cattle. State subsidies do not make land produce. Farming is a skilled profession, requiring knowledge and nerve.

Taking the land amounted to illegal eminent domain even by Zimbabwean judicial standards, but set aside that injustice for a moment. If Mugabe had grabbed the land and given it to black farmers, Zimbabwe could still be the breadbasket of Africa, a net exporter of food. Instead Mugabe suffered from the same misconception many Americans have, that food magically appears on shelves in the store and farmers are quaint country folks beaming serenely over their bountiful fields, flocks and herds. Farmers have to know business, diesel mechanics, marketing, and oh yeah a specialized body of agricultural knowledge too if they are going to make a profit and be ready to do it all again next year.

We need to be concerned about where the next generation of farmers is coming from. The WSDA Future of Farming report to the Legislature recently came out with a 20 year strategic plan with 9 priority statements. Priority #3 is critical To increase farmers entering the business. All of the other priorities, all of the research or subsidies or new market development, will mean nothing if there are no skilled farmers to coax production out of the soil. It’s a lesson we can learn from Zimbabwe.

While we’re in Africa, let me also throw in a lesson learned from my cousin, serving with the Peace Corps in Tanzania. She was curious about the CIA Factbook listing that over 90% of Tanzanians are employed in agriculture, when she knew that substantial numbers live in towns. She figured it out when she saw that nearly everyone is a farmer regardless of any other occupation, raising produce, chickens or pigs even on small city lots. Land and food are a source of economic and food security. That’s another good lesson for us here in the USA.

Do you know where you food comes from?