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June 12, 2011

Georgia's agriculture betting on South African farmers

by Giorgi Lomsadze and Giorgi Lomsadze

As would any farmer with 750 hectares of land to cultivate, 68-year-old Piet Kemp likes to talk crops with the locals. But Kemp usually needs a Georgian translator to do his talking. A continent away from his native South Africa, Kemp now runs a corn business in the southern Georgian region of Kvemo-Kartli, not far from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

“We had a little bit of a problem with wind this year, but we are still hoping to produce some 2,000 tons of wheat and 3,000 tons of corn,” said Kemp one recent workday, as he showed off silos, a tractor repair shop and brand-new machinery to a visiting reporter.

Kemp is one of the first in what the Georgian government hopes will be a long line of South African – primarily Boer -- farmers who will help revitalize Georgia’s sagging agricultural sector. But the official expectations go beyond simply planting crops.

Widespread sustenance farming means that Georgian farmers grow various crops on small plots of land and do not produce enough in a single location to meet commercial demand. Without a concentrated, local source of crops of consistent quality, Georgian retailers now often opt to import fruits and vegetables.

That means that agriculture, a traditional mainstay of Georgia’s economy, has taken a severe hit. The sector slipped from 14.5 percent of Georgia’s Gross Domestic Product in 2005 to 8.3 percent in 2009, according to official data.

To reverse that trend, the government is looking to South Africa. “The South Africans have a long experience in large-scale farming and animal husbandry,” said Georgian Agriculture Minister Baku Kvezereli. “They can set up such larger agriculture businesses in Georgia.”

But if the choice of foreign farmers seems random, the explanation lies with South Africa’s controversial land redistribution campaign, a reform that has triggered widespread violence involving Boers, descendants of ethnic Dutch migrants to South Africa. News of the difficulties sparked the idea of offering Georgia as an alternative for these farmers. President Mikheil Saakashvili’s call this January for agriculture to make up over 20 percent of Georgia’s Gross Domestic Product by 2016 added incentive to the campaign.

The proposal found a ready audience in Kemp, who expressed no concern about his security in Georgia following its 2008 war with Russia. “At home, I sat outside [on the porch] with a gun and a radio [walkie-talkie], so in case someone attacks, all the neighbors drive down,” he recounted. “Here, I just go around my business. No need for guns or anything. Everyone is friendly.”

Kemp first traveled to Georgia last October as part of a Tbilisi-organized tour for Boer farmers, and made the final move in March from his native province of Mpumalanga. He has since formed a partnership with a local farm owner, rented a house in the village of Sartichala, and, as part of the government program, received a Georgian passport. He’s studying Georgian and even considering becoming Georgian Orthodox.

So far, reactions to Kemp from neighboring farmers appear largely welcoming. Using a translator, he busily jokes with locals and shares tips about how to plant seeds deeper and more efficiently and how to get better results from machinery when planting and harvesting. He also is trying to convince his Georgian neighbors to quit their habit of littering farmland with used plastic bottles.

The farming situation in Georgia, however, is far from idyllic. Some of the state-owned land now up for sale to South African farmers comes from a stock of land rented out to Georgian farmers.

Many farmers gripe that, if the government wants to boost agricultural production, it could have just given them some of this land rather than putting it up for sale. “They say these people know how to run a business and all, but maybe I can do a fairly good job, too, if someone gives me enough land,” complained one Kvemo-Kartli farmer, who requested anonymity.

Sensationalist headlines in the Georgian press claiming that thousands of Boers were about to descend on Georgia and take land from locals have added to these misgivings. In response, the government has largely clammed up about its campaign to recruit South African farmers. An online guide to farming opportunities in Georgia (www.boers.ge) set up by the Transvaal Agriculture Union of South Africa, which is cooperating with the Georgian government, used to have a detailed map of Georgian land for sale. Now, such information is available only upon request.

Nonetheless, despite the official reticence about the details, some observers believe that the Boer farmers can indeed help Georgian agriculture go commercial. “Most of all, they can bring the know-how that Georgian farming needs,” commented German Business Association Executive Director Uta Beyer.

Kemp, though, predicts that Georgia will be lucky to attract 100 farmers from South Africa. Sources familiar with the South African tours say that some visiting South Africans have stopped short of purchasing land as they wait for the government to clear the property rights; a recurring problem for land investments in Georgia.

For his part, Kemp is trying to go about his Georgia mission diplomatically. He routinely distributes candy to local children and has plans for a youth soccer tournament. He hopes that his wife can set up a knitting or garden club.

In matters of land, though, Kemp draws on his experience with South Africa’s land disputes, and errs on the side of caution. He’s keeping his eyes on a plot of nearby land, but says he will not buy it until he knows for certain that locals are not using it.

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