Once I had a university lecturer from another department, who made it his mantra to castigate everything and anything about agriculture. His disdain for agriculture made me wonder sometimes whether he ate. It was obvious that he did not fully comprehend the implications of his statements. One day during a lecture, he mentioned that, “I would never allow any of my children to pursue any degree that is agriculture related”. His reason was because, according to him agriculture has no future and that his children will not be part of this ‘failure’. Well, I did not blame him, but blamed the ‘system’ in which he grew up. In a ‘system’ where weeding is presented as corporal punishment for offences in schools, what more could one expect? In a ‘system’ where we hear statements like ‘the poor farmer’, ‘the smallholder farmer’, ‘the illiterate farmer’ among others, indeed, what more could you expect? Much as I was not surprised, it shocked me to the core how a PhD holder could be so oblivious of the fact that agriculture was responsible for his very existence. I had to amass all the energy in me to convince my colleagues not to believe what the lecturer had said. At that time, you dare not challenge your lecturer, fearing that he might deliberately fail you.
Meanwhile, there was another lecturer whom I got to know in the same university. This man would always convince me about agriculture and gave me reason to pursue a career in it. His eloquence, demeanour, humility and how he endeared himself made me admire him. In fact, I owe the genesis of my choice of career and passion in agriculture to him. He taught biometry at the Faculty of Agriculture and later became a chief of a traditional area. Why I am sharing these two seemingly contrasting stories is to drum home the fact that, people have different perceptions about agriculture. If two lecturers of the same rank in a university could have such divergent views about a field, then agriculturists have a duty to demystify some of the misconceptions and make agriculture more attractive, especially to the youth. I still remember the words a colleague of mine said to me some years after graduating from school. He said, “are you still doing your agric thing?” Restraining a boiling resentment, I politely retorted, “what would you have me do? That’s what I studied”. This colleague of mine had virtually abandoned a career in agriculture and was selling solar lamps using his car as vending point. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against following one’s passion and becoming an entrepreneur, but to despise another profession is absolutely unacceptable. I have since not heard much about him, but I wish him well.
Is farming profitable? Is it not too risky? These are but a few of questions that we get almost every day. Let’s take a tour to a maize farm while I answer these questions. A farmer with an arable land, with all inputs such as improved seed, fertilizers and crop protection products adequate for crop production should be able to get high yields and profit. Assuming land is difficult to come by, it follows that one has to hire a piece of land to farm. For maize, an acre of land costs about GHC200 per one crop cycle to hire. A pack of 9kg of improved seed for an acre costs about GHC300 and pesticides cost about GHC 100 per acre. Due to the Fall army worm menace, farmers now spend more on insecticides to control this ravenous pest. A good package of quality fertilizers would cost no less than GHC315 per acre. Altogether, total inputs cost GHC915 excluding labour. Generally, five man-days are required to sow seeds, apply pesticides, do two applications of fertilizer and harvest. For two labour-hands, it amounts to 10 man-days with GHC20 per man-day. Labour therefore amounts to GHC200 per acre. In total, the cost of production is GHC1,115 per acre – this is for the production side. Maize yield is 20 maxi bags of 100 kg per acre, ceteris paribus. Now for the revenue side, current maize price for 100 kg ranges between GHC120 and GHC140. For planning and discounting purposes, we use the lower end of the range – GHC120. Therefore, income from maize production would be GHC2,400 per acre. This brings profit of maize production to GHC1,285 per acre and results in a benefit-cost ratio of 2.2. This simply means that for every GHC1 invested, the farmer gets GHC2.2 in return. That’s a pretty decent return when compared to other investments over the same period of about 90 days. Same conclusions could be made when compared to zero-risk investments such as treasury bills.
Currently, a 91-day treasury bill attracts a maximum of 15% interest. Investing GHC1,115 over a 91-day period gives a return of GHC1,155 including the investment amount. This gives benefit-cost ratio of 1.0 – giving just GHC40 over 91 days! Whiles an investment in a maize farm gives a profit of GHC1,285 per acre over 90 days, a zero-risk investment in T-bill gives only GHC40 over the same period. It goes without saying that, farming is profitable and the youth of Ghana need to know about this. Farming does not necessarily mean “cutlass and hoe” as some people would have you believe. Farming today has reached precision. In the advanced world, farmers are able to forecast crop outputs, gather inputs and resources to produce crops with precision. There are mechanical seed planters, fertilizer spreaders and applicators, combine harvesters, winnowers, dryers, huge storage bins like silos among others. In fact, farming stopped being rudimentary at least 50 years ago. That’s why less than 5% of the people in the US engaged in farming are able to feed their entire population and have food stocks that last more than 20 years.
The future of farming is bright. These days, one can find prices of produce at the touch of a button. Several apps have been deployed to create a network among actors in the agricultural value chain. There are apps that show pictures of plant diseases and deficiencies which farmers can relate to, and advise themselves when they encounter such problems. There is even a technology which senses nutrient levels and directs the fertilizer applicator to go to the exact spot in the field and apply the limiting nutrient. If these do not intrigue you, nothing will! But just like any business venture, there are uncertainties in farming. If the farmer does everything right with quality inputs and good agronomic practices, I bet that no investment can beat farming. To fellow agriculturists, let the world know that, yes, we are proud to be involved in farming. And yes, if I ever encounter that university lecturer again, I would tell him farming is no failure – farming is cool.
West Africa Agronomist, Yara.
The writer is an agronomist and environmental scientist.
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