Failed Vaalharts Olive Farm Project must be a lesson to department

DA Northern Cape Spokesperson of Agriculture, Rural Development & Land Reform:

The DA believes that government must create an enabling environment in which our farming and agri-processing operations can grow the agricultural economy and create jobs in this sector.

Government also needs to guarantee real support for emerging farmers at every stage of business development and, in collaboration with the private sector, must ensure that beneficiaries are given the best chance of success.

The failure of the large-scale agricultural project at the Vaalharts Research Station in Hartswater is therefore cause for great concern.

Failure to effectively utilise this land, on which the botched Vaalharts Olive Project is situated, is not only costing the Northern Cape jobs but potentially also millions of rands in lost provincial Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Ironically, the Vaalharts Olive Project is situated down the road from a highly successful private olive farming venture. It is also situated in the Vaalharts Valley, where the pecan nut industry is set to see a record R1 billion in returns next year. The land in the area is fertile and is showing great agricultural growth.

But the Northern Cape government has not been able to harness this massive potential in the project it launched in the area.

In 2010, the DA visited the Vaalharts Olive Project, which was launched in 2007, only to find that, while the land had been cleared, no trees were planted, the pump stations were vandalized and there were problems with the beneficiaries. On another visit, in 2011, the DA found that conditions had worsened and if one could pick out 100 living olive trees from what remained of the plantation, it was a lot.

After both visits, the DA reported the matter to Agriculture MEC Norman Shushu but instead of instituting a proper intervention, more money was simply thrown at the project, and a tender for further irrigation of the land was advertised.

Finally in 2013, and over R9,5 million later, the Vaalharts Olive Project was officially declared a failure. The department blamed the project’s failure on incorrect fertilizer usage and on the attitudes of the 20 youth beneficiaries.

The DA is taken aback by government’s seemingly apathetic attitude towards the Vaalharts Olive Project and, in turn, towards land reform.

It is even more appalling that political interference resulted in the department snubbing the assistance of a highly successful olive farmer from the region, who has over twenty years experience in the industry.

A report received earlier this year from the NC Agriculture Department, indicates that at last known date, the department was deciding whether to terminate contracts of the intern beneficiaries of the Vaalharts Olive Project with immediate effect and withdraw completely from the project, or whether to terminate contracts of the intern beneficiaries with immediate effect and plant the land with another crop such as pecan nuts, identifying new beneficiaries once the project has been established and the trees have grown.

The DA therefore challenges the department to come clean on its future plans, or perhaps lack of plans, for the fallow land at the Vaalharts Research Station. It can never be accepted that the Department spent a generous budget on this project, allowed it to fail, and then simply walked away with no benefit to the community.

The Department must learn from this failure and must incorporate these lessons into the future plans which the DA challenges it to release.