YOU (South Africa)
Farming in SA
The agricultural industry is an important part of our economy and provides plenty of jobs
AGRICULTURE is enormously important in South Africa. Our farmers produce a large portion of the country’s export products and contribute greatly to the local economy, especially as a source of employment.
But due to water constraints, unpredictable weather and a shortage of available land, agriculture as an industry can be unpredictable.
Although 37,9% (46,6 million hectares) of South Africa’s surface area (122,5 million hectares) is used for farming, only about 6% (7,6 million hectares) of SA’s surface area is arable land used for crop production by commercial farmers, while about 29% (36,5 million hectares) is used as grazing land for livestock.
Yet SA’s diverse climate regions – from subtropical to Mediterranean to semi-desert – means a large variety of agricultural products can be produced here.
In 2020, about 865 000 people worked in SA’s agricultural sector. Farming’s contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) was about 2,5%. GDP is how we measure the health of a country’s economy. It’s the total value of goods and services produced during a year.
It might look as if agriculture’s contribution to GDP is small, but you must remember that agricultural products tie into secondary industries such as packaging and processing in factories, as well as into tertiary industries such as transport, shops and restaurants – after all, agriculture produces our food.
Apart from the 40 122 commercial farmers, SA is also home to many subsistence farmers. Commercial farming is the production of harvests and animal products with the aim of selling it. This type of farming usually incorporates modern technology such as irrigation systems, tractors and combine harvesters.
Subsistence farming is producing just enough food to feed yourself and your family, with little or nothing left over to sell.
In the past, agriculture in SA was regulated (controlled) by the government. Farmers received help in the form of subsidies and financial concessions.
But since the late 1980s the sector has been deregulated and commercial farmers had to adjust to free-market conditions.
A free market is an economic system with little to no government intervention, where the price of goods and services depends solely on supply and demand. In the past, SA was self-sufficient when it came to all the main agricultural products and there was enough left over to export to other countries. But in the free-market system farmers transitioned to large-scale intensive farming and moved away from less profitable products such as milk and wheat. There’s more money to be made in export products such as fruit, citrus and game.
As a result, SA became a net importer (a country that imports more than it exports) of food for the first time in 2008.
SMost of the country’s arable land is used to cultivate maize, followed by wheat and to a lesser extent sugar cane and sunflowers. Maize fields cover about 2,8 million hectares, mostly in the Free State, North West, Gauteng and Mpumalanga. The 2020 maize harvest was a good one, producing more than 15 million tons of this staple food.
Wheat is cultivated in the winter rainfall areas of the Western Cape and the eastern parts of the Free State. SA usually produces about half the wheat necessary for consumption in the country. In 2020 the harvest amounted to around 2 million tons. Wheat fields take up about 500 000 hectares of arable land.
Barley is cultivated mostly in the southern coastal plains of the Western Cape. Thanks to good rain last year, this year’s barley harvest is estimated at about 500 000 tons. In the past year barley farmers were in a tight spot because the demand for their product was down due to the alcohol ban during lockdown. That’s because barley is mostly used to brew beer.
Sorghum is cultivated in the drier parts of SA’s summer rainfall region. Fewer farmers are planting sorghum because other crops such as maize and oilseed have become more profitable. It’s estimated this year’s sorghum harvest will be 120 000 tons.
Cultivation of peanuts is also declining. In 2020 around 20 000 hectares of peanut fields in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Free State and North West yielded 50 000 tons.
Sunflowers thrive in summer rainfall areas and the seed is mostly used to produce cooking oil. The 2020 harvest yielded 765 000 tons. In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Mpumalanga’s Lowveld, sugar cane is the predominant crop. Statistics show there were nearly 22 000 registered sugar-cane farmers in 2019/20 who collec
tively produce on average 20 million tons of sugar a year. SA’s fruit industry exports more than 60% of its produce to about 110 countries. Deciduous fruits are a profitable product cultivated in large parts of the Western Cape as well as the Langkloof Valley in the Eastern Cape. In terms of the area it covers, deciduous fruit is the largest sub-section of the SA fruit industry. This consists of: table grapes (42%), apples (27%), pears (14%), peaches (6%), plums (6%), apricots (3%) and nectarines (2%).
In 2020, the grapes for winemaking yielded a harvest of nearly 1,5 million tons. SA’s 10 main wine-producing regions are in the Breedekloof, Cape South Coast, Little Karoo, Olifants River, Paarl, Robertson, Stellenbosch, Swartland and Worcester in the Western Cape; and near Upington in the Northern Cape. More than 2 873 wine farmers tend vineyards on a collective 92 000 hectares.
The wine industry provides jobs – both directly and indirectly – to about 300 000 people. The 2019 harvest yielded nearly 1,3 tons of grapes (or 973,6 million litres), of which 86% was used to make wine.
The cultivation of citrus is largely limited to the artificially irrigated areas of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Eastern and Western Cape and KZN. Pineapples are well suited to the Eastern Cape and northern KZN.
Other subtropical fruits cultivated in SA include avocados, mangos, bananas, litchis, guavas, papayas and granadillas, all of which are mostly cultivated in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. These provinces also produce macadamia and pecan nuts. The high-lying areas of the Free State and Mpumalanga produce potatoes. Other important agricultural products from these areas are tomatoes, onions and sweetcorn.
In 2020 cotton, which is mostly cultivated in Limpopo, yielded more than 140 000 bales of fibre. Up to 90% of SA’s harvest is exported.
Tobacco is mostly cultivated on farms in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. SA has 177 commercial tobacco farmers, 155 small-scale tobacco farmers and 10 000 farmworkers are employed in the industry.
The Cederberg area of the Western Cape is known for its rooibos, which is only produced here. There are about 300 commercial rooibos farmers and more than 200 small-scale rooibos farmers. Rooibos-tea farming employs about 8 000 farmworkers. In 2020, the rooibos harvest amounted to about 20 000 tons. The product is exported to about 60 countries.
Ornamental plants are also cultivated in SA, including cut flowers, pot plants and greenhouse plants. Proteas are among the most popular export flowers.
Farming with animals is SA’s largest agricultural sector. It contributes about 40% to the total value of agricultural production. There are more than 13 500 livestock farms in SA of which around a third are commercial farms. SA is home to about 22 million sheep and just more than 12 million cattle. The ongoing drought has forced many farmers to drastically reduce the size of their herds. There are dairy farms all over the country but they’re concentrated in the coastal areas where the climate is milder. Milk cows account for about 20% of the country’s cattle population. The poultry meat industry is worth nearly R47 billion, making it the country’s largest individual agricultural sector. SA poultry farmers raise mostly chickens and only a small number of ducks and turkeys. Ostrich is considered red meat. In 2017 (the year the latest census of the commercial agricultural sector was taken), poultry farmers sold 1,1 billion chickens. The income from animals and animal products (such as eggs and m1ilk) amounts to more than R150 billion annually – more than half SA’s total annual agricultural income. More than 162 000 farmworkers are employed on livestock farms, accounting for 21% of the workforce in commercial farming. Our agricultural sector is incredibly important for SA’s future in terms of food security, national income, job creation and the sustainability of rural communities. Farmers face many challenges, including drought, pests, hail and theft.