EDITORIAL COMMENT : Real farmers win when they back efforts to get rid of cheats

Source: EDITORIAL COMMENT : Real farmers win when they back efforts to get rid of cheats | Herald (Opinion)

One of the major reforms made by the Second Republic was to fix the input loan schemes for farmers, making sure that they had the seed and fertiliser to grow a decent crop that would both feed the country and make money for the farmers.

In the past, many of these schemes operated badly and benefited the corrupt and the cheats. There were those who sold their inputs, and so made money without even planting a single seed.

There were those who grew crops, but then sold to them to someone else and so avoided the automatic loan repayment when they delivered.

And these cheats never even considered it worth repaying the money, as they could dip into the honey pot again next year and in any case it “was only Government money”.

The result was obvious. A lot of money spent and wasted so the Government had less to spend the following year, and a growing attitude that the cheats and criminals were the smart operators. Farmers who never farmed were the ones getting rich.

The Second Republic changed this. For a start the loan schemes were put on a sound business footing, with the farmers treated like adults.

By this time last year much of the undergrowth had been cleared and an effective package of schemes was in place, with adequate funding and revamped logistics to ensure the inputs reached the farmers on time.

That, plus good rains in many areas, saw the record harvests. Most farmers recognise the need for honesty and hard work to make money. So they used their inputs properly, and for a lot of small-scale farmers this meant a major change in farming methods, harvested their crops and delivered the surpluses to the GMB or Cottco.

There may have been some payment delays, although this year these were not severe and it seems more a result of an exposed need for better processing administration than anything else since the Government was determined to pay quickly.

But there has been cheating. Even without the laws and regulations in place that criminalise side marketing, the general law sees it as breach of contract and that can be serious. And some of those who side market reckon they do not have to repay the loans.

In fact it can be safely assumed that anyone tempted into side marketing is doing so purely to avoid repayment.

In contractual arrangements, regardless of whether these are State financed or privately financed, the loans are deducted from the proceeds of the crops delivered before the farmer gets the balance.

Although actual “stop orders” are not often used these days, the systems are still called stop-orders since this was how irrevocable instructions were given to bankers.

Now the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement wants to make the system cheat-proof. Farmers who cheat will not get another loan, ever.

Going further, the Ministry will consider whether that farmers ought to be farming. As has been noted, a farmer who cannot borrow for inputs might not be farming again.

And if someone cannot use their land, they lose it under the new dispensation.

Farmer organisations have been totally supportive, since they want the pool of cash cycled through the input schemes to be growing each year allowing farmers to expand production and make decent livings.

Of course there are problems in farming. Cyclones hit, droughts can be extreme in some districts, rivers can flood, or even locusts can appear. But the genuine and honest farmer knows that when there is some disaster the first port of call is one those who they owe money.

We saw this after the drought two years ago. A fair number of those in the Command Agriculture programme, which is run by CBZ with Government guarantees. CBZ, quite professionally, looked at the individual cases and in most found that they were dealing with a competent farmer hit by bad weather. So they worked out payment plans, rather than call in the Government guarantees.

In other schemes a set of workable rules is now in place. Agritex certifies the farmer physically exists, has land and has undergone the required upgrade of skills. The loan goes through, and the loan is then repaid.

This establishes a track record that will be useful when there is some disaster. The lender can then look at that record, see that the farmer is basically viable and make plans.

As time goes on a lot of the farm financing will be moving into more formal banking type arrangements, either through commercial banks or through the Government’s own Agricultural Finance Corporation.

And so far as the AFC is concerned, and State support for farm financing, this is to see money already committed is recycled each year, with the Finance Minister topping up to cope with expansion in production, so keeping interest rates very low.

In this sort of arrangement if agriculture is budgeted to grow 15 percent one year, the taxpayers only have to find a new 15 percent in new capital, rather than find some impossible sum to replace the money that was stolen or wasted.

That 15 percent extra capital might well be a large sum, but at least it produces results.

Proper modern farming is very big business, regardless of whether the farmer has 1000ha or 10ha. Put together it can drive this country forward at high velocity. This needs a lot of capital investment.

The Government can make that investment, adding more each year, but to move forward it needs to keep the equity it already has so the new money is for expansion.

The Agriculture Ministry is right to keep tightening up on the cheats.

And the honest majority are tight to support those steps since they will be the big winners when no money is wasted or stolen, but all lent out properly to the real farmers.