We Don’t Do Cooperation

Agri WesKaap, the Western Cape provincial department of agriculture, was insightful enough to notice local valley farmers were struggling with environmental legislation. They were proactive enough to come forward with a solution. To cut a long story short, wine farmers sometimes have natural ground on their properties that are suitable for agricultural expansion. However, environmental legislation dictates that environmental impact studies must be done if vineyards are to encroach on virgin land. These impact studies can cost upwards of R100,000 each, often out-of-reach of capital-strained family-run farms.

You would think the farming fraternity would be elated that the provincial government gave the environmental mapping project R400,000, to aid them in identifying suitable land for expansion and cutting costs of subsequent impact studies. However, this was not the case. The forum erupted into a cacophony of complaints about existing legislation, that R400,000 would not cover all potential impact study costs and serious concern if more endangered species were discovered. It was like walking into a 50% off sale at Stuttafords, but having shoppers moan that they still had to pay half if they wanted to buy clothing… it astounded me! Furthermore, Agri WesKaap asked for community cooperation in mapping all potential areas of agricultural expansion. A comment came from the floor, “We’re Afrikaans, we don’t work together.” I was shocked!

Thereafter, the forum continued to complain that national government did not care about commercial farmers. I can understand this allegation, considering the hostile rhetoric that has come from radical corners within the ruling party, however this was Agri WesKaap and they were attempting to help. How can communities expect government to assist them, if they actively admit they don’t even work together within their communities? Would anyone want to assist an industry hell-bent on undermining one another or being the lone-ranger in a sector that should be collaborating for collective success? Who wants to help communities who look gift horses in the mouth?

Small communities comprising mostly of family-run farms are the first to moan that money is tight, that market conditions are dismal, that overheads are stifling and that government fails to assist them. So, why are economies of scale being ignored by these wine communities? Why in an effort to compete, is there not more cooperation amongst winery cooperatives, farmers and wine region marketing organisations? Are we not missing out on a golden opportunity? I simply refuse to believe it is Afrikaans culture to live with a laager mentality where it’s every man for himself and stuff the neighbour; if he does better than thou, I smite thee. I refuse to believe this is intrinsic to anyone’s culture; as a De Wet I refuse to accept it’s part of ours.

Is this lack of cooperation not simply a psychological byproduct of being somewhat unsuccessful in recent years? Do the difficult trading conditions for wine farmers not a survivalist mentality make, where the collective looks disdainfully upon successes of the few? Where every man tries to be in it for himself, because the less you have, the more you instinctively protect the little you do have?

I’m hoping this is indeed the case. It is neither healthy for the industry nor the region if an agri-business fraternity is out to undermine and consume itself. I’m not suggesting an OPEC of viticulture. Monopolies and cartels are never good for the consumer, however wine farmers going bankrupt is not good for the consumer either. It would curb customer choice and market diversity, it would wipe out wealth and therefore, place strain on job-creation and the provincial economy. We definitely need more wine industry cooperation, not to the level of vine ‘cartelification,’ but at least to a level where the industry is attempting to protect the engines of grape production.

How can we do this? Well, that is the subject of an agricultural-economy thesis and I would end up not writing a blog, but a book. For goodness sake, if we’re given a freebie from government, let’s accept it and use it to the advantage of the valley’s farmers. Additionally, it is about time those in the valley begin looking at internal solutions for external pressures. We may not be able to control the market, control electricity and petrol price-pressures, control restrictive legislation and low global wine-prices; we can control the way we approach it. From where I’m standing, it seems much more beneficial to stand together as a united interest group, than to be competing not only with the world, but also with our neighbours.

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