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Resiliency key to success in global ag context

Posted on December 27, 2023 by Taber Times

By Heather Cameron
Taber Times
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

During Farming Smarter’s Global Crop Production Virtual Conference on December 13, Ken Coles from Farming Smarter had a discussion with Zimbabwe farmer, Philip Johan Odendaal, about resiliency in farming.

“I’m more and more blown away by what the world has to offer, the diversity of characters within the ag sector, and the passion in general for people to be change drivers,” said Odendaal. “And then what really shone through for me was the strength and resilience shown by farmers from all over the world.”

Odendaal stated that it seems that everyone is against farmers and that everyone is rewinding and going back to nature, which is sad.

“Policy makers may or not be aware of the impact of messing with farmers and restricting us but believe me when I say it’s real and it’s ugly,” said Odendaal. “Just a message to the farmers is let’s keep farming, and against all odds or whatever gets thrown at your way, we need to produce.”

Odendaal stated that the colonization of Africa came at a cost and the cost was paid heavily by future generations. Zimbabwe in particular, Odendaal said, had a very brutal guerilla war that kicked off in 1964 and ended in 1979, and 1980 was when Zimbabwe became independent. Odendaal stated that he mentioned the war because it was experienced by one generation above him and it was a war that his parents fought in and that level of brutality has had a lingering effect. It’s also relevant, Odendaal said, as everyone is seeing war all over the place and generations will be affected by what is going on in the world. Odendaal also spoke about how in 1980, there was a brutal land reform program, and the country went from 400,000 farmers down to 12,000 and that speaks volumes regarding the level of hardship and trauma, Odendaal said. 

Odendaal said that in 2001, dictator Robert Mugabe initiated what he called the FastTrack Land Reform program to address the cultural imbalances of land access and ownership, and it was severe, violent and unnecessary, dripping with corruption, and it didn’t result in balancing out inequalities more than it served to provide land, wealth and power to a select few. 

“It was an incredibly difficult time as we witnessed beatings, murders, and we very much lived in fear until it was our turn to be sort of overrun and overthrown,” said Odendaal. “One can really sit back and think about the word fear. And I like people to stop and really try and understand the level of that emotion because we had no help. You know, we were on our own. No one came for us. We thought the world had turned its back on us and neighbours were dealing with the same sort of issues. Police were setting up roadblocks to stop people from coming in and helping us. Long story short, we lost everything, and we lost it fast.”

Odendaal then spoke about how he left before eventually returning to Zimbabwe and moved from a game hunting career into a career where he learned to “hustle” on the land. As white farmers were not allowed to grow crops, Odendaal said, he and others would make deals with new landowners for a percentage of yield. Odendaal explained that the farmers at the time lacked the skills and so they were sort of “closet” welcomes back to help. Inflation at the time, Odendaal said, was skyrocketing, and they were constantly living on the black market to survive while policy changes came through daily. The inflation, Odendaal said, was basically caused by the fact that they took land away from the European farmers and they divided it up into small shareholder portions, so people were starving, and leaving, and those actions completely crippled the economy. 

“One thing I can say to people is you don’t just never give up,” said Odendaal. “You don’t really know what’s coming around the next corner. And if you’re lying down, you’re going to miss it. The temptation to feel sorry for yourself, to sleep in or to fall into depression does become a really strong emphasis. The easy way to combat this is just to get out of bed in the morning, don’t sleep in; there are days for that, so do that then. But Monday to Saturday, get up and keep moving. Really, really don’t stop dreaming. Don’t stop fighting and try obviously to keep away from bad coping mechanisms. Manage your triggers and manage your visuals and what’s coming into your field of vision.”

Odendaal emphasized that these things don’t really need to be addressed just when people are struggling or feeling alone; they can also be addressed now when things are going well. 

Ken Coles then spoke about how Odendaal now works at a pig farm that produces approximately 70 per cent of all of the pork in Zimbabwe. That, Coles said, was one of the places that he was able to visit in addition to other groups that have been given the opportunity to farm again even though they can’t own land, can’t get bank loans, and there is a corrupt environment with both black markets and regular markets and the risk involved is beyond anything anyone could imagine.

“It was quite inspiring to see what can happen in a short amount of time given the right opportunity,” said Coles.

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