We read in the press that inflation has almost halved from what it was during the previous rainy seasons. This is attributed to the drop in prices following the bumper maize harvest.
The downward trend in inflation has been welcomed by many people outside the farming industry. Some see the fall in inflation as logically leading to interest rates revision downwards. For buyers and consumers times have never been as good as the present ones.
But farmers are indignant; they say maize is being bought from them at less than the cost of production they incurred in working towards realising this year’s harvest. There is a perennial dilemma in Malawian agriculture. What makes farmers happiest makes consumers unhappiest. During food shortages, those farmers and distributors who had the maize were food reaping hefty profits while consumers were groaning under exorbitant prices.
When a doctor wants to cure a chronic disease, he first diagnoses the causes with his utmost skills, then applies the cure using optimum doses not half measures. This is the way the agricultural dilemma should be tackled basically by two professionals; agricultural scientists and agricultural economists.
The agricultural scientist guides the farmer through extension services to achieve the highest yield per hector. The farmer is advised what technology to use as well as the inputs. Whether the farmer will go ahead to work on the farm will depend among other things on economic benefits. It is at this stage the agricultural economics comes in.
The agricultural economist concerns himself with the entire food and fibre system from the inputs used in production all the way to the production marketing and consumption of products. The farmer of today farms not just to satisfy family consumption needs, but also to sell the surplus product. He must produce what can find buyers in domestic or foreign markets. Here, the agricultural economist comes in as well to advise incentives as well.
No government in the world leaves the farmer to fend for himself under the vicissitude of markets. The most industrialised countries take the measures to ensure that the farmer receive income sample enough to encourage him to continue producing for the markets.
Any kind of economic planning that is taking place in Malawi currently must concern itself with how to establish a price level for farmers that will encourage them to remain on the farm, and yet that prices should nt be too high for the average consumer in the urban centres.
Bsically, this planning will require the cooperation of agricultural scientists and agriculture economist. They will need to coopt sociologists, anthropologists and traditional authorities because when you talk about agriculture, you talk about land which though a factor of production like a tractor cannot be imported. It is limited in size while the population on it is growing.
The planner will have to answer the following questions which are confronted under any economic system.
- What to produce? It has been said often enough that food should not just mean nsima or thick maize porridge. Other types of food should be introduced into the traditional menu.
- How to produce? This is where the agricultural scientist reigns supreme-what technology must be introduced. But the economists are also concerned with keeping costs at the minimum level while achieving the highest yields.
- When to produce? Traditionally, farming is undertaken with onset of rain. These days it is exhorted that agricultural activities should take place throughout the year with irrigation facilities.
- For whom to produce? Agricultural production must meet food requirements of the population and also provide raw materials for agro-based industries as well as commodity exports.
Perhaps, nothing that is said above is quite new, still it is a fact that agricultural revolutions whether that which occurred in Britain in the 18th century or the Green Revolution of India and their Asian countries, the secret was handling old ideas with new techniques. Let us get organised for success. What will this entail? It is for the planners to suggest what and how it should be done.n