An agronomist who is concerned about the report that fertiliser companies may be ripping peasant farmers by selling them excess fertiliser that does not necessarily boost their production(The Insider –February) has suggested that the farmers should take group action against the companies as well as Agritex officers.
The report said peasant farmers were slowly being plunged into debt as the cost of inputs that were recommended to them by fertiliser companies and Agritex officers could only be justified if they produced more than 2.5 tonnes of maize per hectare. Surveys had indicated that the average yield from peasant farmers was only 1.5 tonnes per hectare.
The agronomist says a similar case was investigated in the United States in the 1980s when it was discovered that fertiliser companies were making recommendations for their own benefit than that of farmers.
Identical soil samples were sent to 150 private and government soil testing/fertiliser recommending institutions across the country. The researchers, she says, received 150 different recommendations for fertiliser applications.
These results, published in a series called “Testing Testing” New Farm magazine, coincided with the farm crisis when high input costs were driving farmers out of business.
Farmers in Zimbabwe have also been complaining about the non-viability of certain crops, especially maize, which the country is now importing but they have laid the blame on low producer prices.
The articles and other evidence, she says, fuelled a “farmer backlash” against agricultural companies and the extension services and gave birth to citizen’s action groups which demanded the allocation of government funds for research and extension into “low input” and “sustainable” agricultural practices and recommendations.
As a result, she says, chemical companies are now “falling over themselves” to produce “cost effective” and “environmentally friendly” products. Agricultural research institutions have added units of scientists charged with the study of more rational farm management practices.
She says: “Since this was a movement of practising farmers and was led by a coalition of farmers and sympathetic researchers and academics, it was extremely practical.
“Farmers now have a new sense of themselves and their previous low status has been raised. They are self-confident and speak up to politicians and the scientists who, in the past, tried to mystify their work.”
“Page and Chonyera’s paper suggests that Zimbabwe has a lot in common with the 1980s situation in the US. I suspect that commercial farmers in Zimbabwe are also being told to apply unnecessary, uneconomic and ecologically disastrous amounts of chemicals which adversely affect the rural workers,” the agronomist says.
While the US farming community is vastly different from that in Zimbabwe, farmers in Zimbabwe are already well organised through their two unions -the Commercial Farmers Union and the Zimbabwe Farmers Union.
It is therefore quite easy to stand up to the fertiliser companies and the Agritex officers. The major problem, however, may be that some of the most successful farmers today and some in the leadership of the unions have been employees of fertiliser companies and may in fact have been part of the game of recommending unnecessary quantities of fertiliser to peasant (as well as commercial) farmers.
Some are, in fact, directors of either the fertiliser companies or other companies that supply fertiliser and other inputs to farmers. For them it will be difficult to mobilise members to stand up against the fertiliser companies as it would mean organising farmers to revolt against their leadership.
It is also important to demystify the thinking that farmers who use fertiliser are more progressive than those who use animal manure or a mixture. After all, even in the developed world, there are some farmers who are coming back to the use of natural fertilisers as opposed to chemical ones and they are in fact being hailed, especially by environmental groups, as being more progressive than those still using chemicals. Yet the poor farmers who have always relied on these environmentally safe (organic) methods are scorned at.