Hortgro spoke to her about her new role and to learn what the SmartAgri Plan offers to the deciduous fruit industry.
By Anna Mouton
Whatever their views on climate change, most people in the pome-and stone-fruit industries can agree about the impacts of warmer weather and diminishing rainfall on their businesses. The severe drought of 2015–2017 in the Western Cape is still fresh in our collective memories, and devastating water shortages continue in regions such as the Klein Karoo. Meanwhile, interventions such as rest-breaking agents and shade-nets have become essential for fruit production.
“Things are changing,” says Prof Stephanie Midgley. “People want to know how they can protect themselves, and what they can do to make sure they don’t suffer losses.” Midgley was appointed by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture in the position of Climate Change and Risk Scientist earlier this year, to assist with the implementation of the SmartAgri Plan.
The SmartAgri Plan is the brainchild of Dr Ilse Trautmann of the Department of Agriculture and Penny Price of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning of the Western Cape. It was conceived in 2013 with the aim to create a more resilient agriculture sector in the province.
In 2014, Midgley and a team from the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town won the bid to develop the Plan, which was launched in 2016. Up to 2018, she was also involved in the implementation as an external consultant.
“The development of the SmartAgri Plan was very participatory and there was a huge focus on stakeholder engagement” recalls Midgley. She and her team consulted a diverse set of role-players from across the agriculture industry, as well as representatives from a range of government departments. “We wanted people to unpack what they view as their risks, and how they are already adapting and responding to those risks. And then we wanted to find out what they would like to do, and what barriers they face.”
The six smartest priorities
According to Midgley, the SmartAgri Plan is a comprehensive road map intended as a long-term guide. As it was obviously impossible to address every aspect immediately, Trautmann and her team started with six priority areas. These were likely to have a big impact, and were high on the policy agenda, both nationally and provincially, so people and budgets were in place to work on them.
The six priority areas are conservation agriculture; ecological infrastructure restoration; catchment management; energy efficiency and renewable energy; climate-proofing agri-processing; and integrated knowledge for agricultural extension.
In the case of conservation agriculture, for example, there was already buy-in and knowledge in certain agricultural sectors. The SmartAgri Plan builds on this by scaling up adoption and rolling it out to other crops.
When it came to climate-proofing agri-processing, the Western Cape had a strong focus on growing agri-processing. “They still do, and they’ve had quite a lot of success with it,” says Midgley. “But the problem is that agri-processing relies on production that needs resources. You want to make sure that processors aren’t going to collapse when they run out of water or there are power failures.”
Midgley highlights that clarity around existing infrastructure and service delivery, and their future expansion requires engagement with all levels of government, including municipalities. “Even though they aren’t responsible for agriculture, they do play a very big role in managing water and energy services, and disaster risk management, which all contribute to helping agriculture become climate resilient.”
The power of knowledge
Last year saw an independent evaluation of the first three years of the implementation of the SmartAgri Plan. Although good progress had been made, there were inevitable shortcomings. The post of Climate Change and Risk Scientist was created to address these, and strengthen the implementation of the Plan.
One of the first things Midgley did when she started her new position in January, was to write a management improvement plan in response to the recommendations of the independent assessment. “I’m now rolling out that plan,” she says. “A lot of it is re-engaging with the sector, from industry bodies all the way down to farm level, to find out what the information and support needs are.”
The intention is to record what actions growers are taking, and what is working. “We want to monitor real success,” stresses Midgley. “We don’t want to always talk about the problems, but we want to focus on solutions, and on the available tools and technology, and making sure everybody has access to those.”
Empowering people with up-to-date scientific information so that they can make informed decisions is one of Midgley’s key functions. Another is to stay abreast of relevant research and to synthesise and disseminate it, for example through the SmartAgri Barometer newsletter.
“We want to provide a knowledge base to support the people who advise farmers,” says Midgley, “not only government extension officers, but also other bodies including industry bodies, and of course private consultants.” The SmartAgri Plan has already generated a number of knowledge products, which Midgley is in the process of updating.
As far as pome- and stone-fruit growers are concerned, Midgley explains that they can draw on her as a resource by working through their industry technical experts and research managers. “If they have specific needs or questions, they can contact Hortgro, who is in touch with me. And I’m not on my own, I have colleagues with expertise, so we can provide more support than was available in the past.”
In the end, Midgley sees her new role as one of encouraging the uptake of technologies and practices that will make the agriculture industry more resilient in the face of climate change. “I want people to find solutions,” she asserts, “and I want this industry to stay strong.”
For more about the SmartAgri Plan, visit the GreenAgri website at www.greenagri.org.za. Or listen to the climate change podcast, Die Kwik Styg, which was broadcast on RSG and is available from the Western Cape Government’s online drought portal at www.elsenburg.com/drought/.
The SmartAgri Plan received the Eco-logic Gold Award in the category Climate Change in 2019. Die Kwik Styg received the award in 2020, and Lizma van Zyl, the presenter of Die Kwik Styg, also received the Izethelo Media Award during the Deciduous Fruit Industry Awards in 2020.