Judy Stuart is an award-winning dairy farmer who is using her expertise to address rural youth unemployment and curb critical tapering of the South African agricultural industry by breeding a new generation of highly proficient farm managers.
The New Idea
Judy is training youth from disadvantaged backgrounds in rural areas of South Africa to become farm managers. The idea is to create rural youth employment by breaking historical barriers and stimulating farming interest in rural black youth to empower them to become competent farm managers. On the other hand, Judy also aims to solve the problem of poor farm management which is hindering production in the agricultural industry in South Africa.
Judy’s Future Farmers searches and selects aspiring individuals among rural youth and offers them an intensive apprenticeship on various farms. The idea is to train youth starting with the most menial jobs to managerial responsibilities, so they can develop a thorough understanding of how the industry works; as well as the confidence to perform as competent farm managers. The trainees may choose to train in a field aligned with their own interests. Through her vast network, Judy secures the interns a place with farmers who share her vision. Once the trainees complete two to three years in local apprenticeship, they take a compulsory 12-month internship on a farm overseas to learn new technologies and another farming culture. Upon finishing their training abroad, trainees return to take up employment as farm managers or found their own businesses as farm owners.
Through this model, Judy has managed to create a new crop of competent farm managers among people who would otherwise not have considered farming as a career; or would have simply been excluded. In just over two years the program trained 60 future farmers in the KwaZulu-Natal province, with another five undertaking internships overseas and six now working as farm managers. Judy is strengthening Future Farmers’s structure to allow for scale and has partnerships underway to spread to the Eastern and Western Cape provinces. She has also devised a licensing model to infuse her training model to other citizen organizations and agribusinesses interested in developing professional careers for youth in the agricultural sector.
Although agriculture in South Africa contributes less than 4 percent to its GDP, it accounts for 14 percent of the country’s employment. The sector is well-diversified with field crops, livestock, and horticulture as the main sectors. Wine and fruit production has seen the most dynamic development in the past ten years with a large share of total output exported. Yet, South Africa’s rural areas are characterized by high levels of poverty with approximately 70 percent of South Africa’s poor people residing in rural areas.
On closer inspection of the agricultural sector and the rural population, we find a sector that is dualistic, with a highly developed commercial farming sector co-existing with subsistence (communal) farms. These large privately owned commercial farms make up 80 percent of agricultural land and are owned by white South Africans, who make up only 10 percent of the population. There are few black farmers who have the expertise to run a large commercial operation. Historically, they have not had access to land or to adequate education and training, which also results from the lack of generational transfer of knowledge or skills. This is the legacy of apartheid policies which excluded black people from owning or renting land outside reserves called Bantustans (14 percent of the land mostly harsh and inappropriate for agricultural activities). The policies favored large commercial farms owned by the white elite giving them natural resources, financial and agribusiness facilities, and rural infrastructure.
Although agricultural policy reforms have been introduced since the democratization of South Africa’s economy to address these past injustices, the incomes of rural black people remain constrained with few opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship. Land continues to be in the hands of a few and employment opportunities in commercial agriculture are still largely limited to unskilled workers earning low wages, with a large share of total employment, seasonal and temporary. Farm laborers are an invisible class deliberately created as an exploitable labor force, even before apartheid. Farm workers are also a powerless class as a result of traditional paternalistic patterns of social interaction between farmers and laborers. The government has tried to change the relationship between farmers and laborers by introducing policies to replace their interaction with a direct relationship between the state and farm workers. But without sufficient understanding of farm worker’s development gap over a century, this has left workers in a more marginalized position with employers.
Thus, young people in rural areas are discouraged to participate in the industry. They observe the patterns of dysfunctional household dynamics brought about by exploitive seasonal work, gender inequality, poor education, and lack of social and language skills. Although there was rapid expansion of innovative public service delivery to farms, this has deteriorated since 2000 due to government disinterest, and rural areas being incorporated into greater municipalities and subject to institutional urban bias. Since then, there have been virtually no programs focusing on building self-esteem around the usefulness of farm work experience, encouraging participation in the planning of the sector, and farm workers have not been given the social and economic resources to help nurture and promote agricultural skills.
The pool for potential farm owners and managers is shrinking as the young educated white middle-class opts for urban living in South Africa. From 1988 to 1998, the commercial farm sector lost 140,000 jobs, decreasing the workforce by 20 percent, and this pattern continues. It is a challenge to retain skilled and experienced people in a sector that was historically managed by families and knowledge was transferred through generations. With the socialization that polarized farm owners and laborers, an attitude of “us” versus “them” persists from both classes; reluctant to see this as an opportunity to introduce a new labor force among poor rural youth.
Given this legacy of exclusion and discrimination, Judy understands that the challenge is now to unlock the talents and creative energy of young people, improve their participation in all aspects of the sector and eradicate the barriers. So with a great idea, Judy went into neighboring townships to identify individuals who met Future Farmers aptitude test and showed interest in agriculture. Once a candidate has been identified or makes contact with Future Farmers, they undergo a set of interviews with Judy and her team to establish if there is both potential and passion in the individual. Candidates must display leadership qualities and possess discipline and endurance to be able to adapt to the strict regime of farming life. The candidates who pass then become Future Farmers interns. Future Farmers sources farmers using an extensive database that Judy built as a leading dairy farmer and global leader in the agricultural sector. Farmers are visited and interviewed to ensure they best match the candidate’s profile and understand the goals and vision of the organization. Once a match is found, interns’ undergo further interviews with their potential employer and a mentor from Future Farmers. This extensive interview process ensures the success of the program.
The 2 to 3-year internships begin with basic training and orientation with their mentor. This is also an opportunity for interns and mentors to build a relationship of trust and the interns know they are not alone during while working on the farm. The role of the mentor is to offer the intern support, guidance, and supplementary training regarding professional conduct. The employer also evaluates the interns and routinely reports to Future Farmers. Interns start at the bottom, from erecting a fence to milking a cow or driving a tractor. They work their way through farming systems, learn as much as possible and gain experience and respect. Once the internship is over, the most outstanding candidates, reflecting good work ethics and reliability are placed on a 12-month apprenticeship with commercial farmers overseas to learn new technologies and approaches to farming, as well as personal maturity by experiencing a different culture. Farmers are sourced through Judy’s global network as well as Worldwide Agricultural Exchange, a non-profit that operates an international youth exchange with Future Farmers. Some of the most outstanding candidates are ready for this final step within two years. To date, interns have been sent to the US, Australia, and Germany.
During their apprenticeship with Future Farmers, interns earn wages and there is no cost to them. Future Farmers has established sponsorship with Underberg Farmers Association and the Saville Foundation to cover the cost of international travel and insurance. The interns are obliged to pay this back from their wages when they are placed overseas. They will receive strong wages at these farms, based in leading international economies. The payment structure is divided into six months installments at no interest payable directly to sponsors. The funds are then rotated and used to send the next cohort overseas. When they return, these highly trained farm managers are free to return to their previous employers (as many have established lifetime relationships) or find other management positions. Future Farmers further assists new farm mangers with employment although few need this service as the program. The program is well-known in the sector and farm mangers are in great demand. Many proceed to form partnerships with their employers which helps introduce new, yet highly skilled, entrepreneurs into the sector.
In two years, Future Farmers went from training two young farmers to sustaining an intake of 60 interns a year, and most of this growth was through word-of-mouth. All of them are earning money, supporting their families, and have committed to a career in the agricultural sector. Such rapid growth made Judy realize how powerful the idea was and she decided Future Farmers should enter a new phase; to strengthen it as an institution and prepare the model for scale.
Judy has identified and selected six trustees to assist in taking the organization forward. All trustees are involved in the decision-making processes and the finances are managed by African Conservation Trust with Ewing Trust Company Limited. The activities of Future Farmers have been limited to KwaZulu-Natal province in spite of great demand from other South African provinces, from both farmers and potential future farmers. Now, with a new operational structure in place and models for fundraising, the organization will scale nationwide and is in the process of starting in the Eastern Cape, in partnership with Amadlelo, a black empowerment agribusiness trust. A similar negotiation is underway with the Biodynamic Agriculture Association to expand in the Western Cape. To better prepare to scale, Judy is developing new services based on the core training model, to offer national agricultural training expertise to youth employment organizations and to train future farmers in sub-sectors such as forestry and poultry by agribusinesses, employing a licensing model to rapidly infuse the idea among key players.
As a young person, growing up in the city, Judy had an unexpected passion for all things agricultural and spent her time breeding domestic animals for at animal shows. She was determined to turn this into a profession after high school, and was devastated to learn that only white males were permitted to study agriculture in South Africa’s tertiary institutions. Judy’s dream deferred, she later married and became a mother of two. However, an opportunity to explore her passion would come again years later when her husband decided to purchase a small farm and move the family out of the city.
Judy was told by other farmers that the plot of land was too small to be economically viable, but she did not listen and used her savings to buy three dairy cows. In time, those cows became holders of national production records and championship winners. She learned about dairy farming by reading, not being afraid to ask questions and experience. Judy has become one of South Africa’s most revered dairy farmers, contributing to farming publications, and invited to represent South Africa at global conferences on dairy farming and agricultural innovations.
It was when Judy was asked to assist emerging black farmers in the Free State province that she realized how essential it is to introduce a new group to agriculture and farming in South Africa for industry to grow. This exposed her to challenges created by apartheid: the hardship of rural communities as a result of the lack of education, and the poor employment of casual farm laborers. During this time a number of children visited her farm from the surrounding rural community, and asked her to train them in dairy farming so they could enter the farming town’s youth agricultural shows. Judy was intrigued by their genuine passion for farming and eagerness to learn.
Judy thoroughly enjoyed training the youngster who performed phenomenally at the agricultural shows. But when she heard them discuss how they had no prospects beyond high school since they could never afford tuition at agricultural colleges, Judy decided to dedicate herself to changing this reality. So with two boys fresh out of high school, Future Farmers was born. Since then, the organization has reached 40 youngsters. Judy wants to see her idea grow nationally, and actively promotes Future Farmers to bridge the historical divide in rural South Africa.