Fewer farmers, an aging workforce and increasingly variable weather... it's a familiar story.
While many African countries are bulging at the seams in terms of population, 80% of potential arable land - an area covering 800million ha or 25 times the size of the UK - is still untouched.
Cactus-friendly conditions don't help. Just like the North American maize harvest, baking summers and dry winters meant many African farmers' grain stores are emptying quicker than a Saharan waterhole.
Those problems have left a colossal food export market on its doorstep, with 27 countries likely to need food support next year.
Farmers Weekly's Oliver Mark visited several farms in South Africa. See the photos below and read about the farmers' battle against climate and costs.
South Africa is the flagship country in a continent poised to more than triple its population to 3.6 billion people by 2100.
All those people need feeding. As do those in India, China and the rest of an over-populated Asia where industry continues to gobble up arable land.
That should mean export markets remain stable, but does not mean the cash will land in farmers' pockets.
Many under-producing South African farmers have abandoned their rural roots to take up residence in city-based tin huts and sheds. Five percent of the 49 million population live on less than $2/day - almost enough to buy one pre-packed sandwich in the UK.
"As much as 25% of the population is unemployed," says Wynn Dedwith, South African machinery importer. "But agriculture is not attracting people to work."
Sixty eight percent of farmers are over the age of 60 and, just like the UK, farm numbers have plummeted from 58,000 in 1993 to 40,000 in 2009.
"In reality it means there are fewer, larger more productive farming units - business-driven enterprises," says Mr Dedwith.
That has been the driving force behind a steady 11.9% rise in farm income since the end of the apartheid era in 1993.
In fact, it's no surprise to hear that those who earned more than £300,000 from their farm business made up 53% of total gross farm income in South Africa.
Those farmers must satisfy the bellies of a swollen middle class, whose preferences have moved from a bowlful of maize. Instead, they have developed a taste for livestock-derived products. Milk and meat, as well as fruit and vegetables, are much less efficient uses of the land.
Can production increase?
With almost all the available arable land under plough already, increased production can only be achieved by upping productivity. This is not easy on largely desert-like soils.
"As much as 25% of the population is unemployed But agriculture is not attracting people to work."
Wynn Dedwith, South African machinery importer
The model is the USA, where farmers upped yields by 150% over the past fifty years. That came by investing research and development, embracing technology and reducing tillage.
Precision farming and no-till isn't spreading quite as quickly as the bush fires that engulf Africa's scrubland each winter, but it's establishing itself little by little.
"There's a common misconception among farmers that they can make more money by producing less," says Jamie Rixton, sales manager for Valtra Africa.
"When input prices rise sharply, as they have recently, it seems easier to save on total costs, but this isn't necessarily the most profitable option."
Like the rest of the world, input costs are growing quicker than a baby giraffe.
On average they have risen by 13% each year since 2005.
Compare that with the 8.9% growth in product price over the same period and it's clear that the jaws are closing on the least profitable farm businesses.
Forget the climate - 51% of farmers rated input costs as the greatest obstacle in South African agriculture.
Times are even tougher for subsistence farmers, who lack the bargaining clout to negotiate prices.
The only way they can save money is by ganging up to form co-operatives, or face going without key fertiliser and herbicides.
Machinery and kit sales often provide a barometer of the health of an agricultural industry.
Many major European and American manufacturers have come and gone over the years. They see South Africa as the ideal gateway to begin their assault on African agriculture if, and when, it takes off.
There are twice the number of tractor brands to pick from compared with the UK, despite the market being a fifth of the size (about 5,000 units). It means many top brands must compete against budget Chinese and Indian equivalents.
Many farmers opt for a couple of bargain-basement Indian-made tractors, rather than one from a better-known manufacturer. But that often backfires after one season's work.
"Long term decisions should not be based on short-term prices," says Mr Rixton. "Most of those tractors manage little more than 3,000 hours and have no sell-on value."
But big manufacturers struggle to compete with this cheap tractor throwaway culture, and the move three years ago to Tier 2 emissions regulations hasn't helped.
"More complex common rail engines struggle to deal with poor quality, high sulphur fuel," says Mr Rixton.
"We often find that the fuel has been watered down so much that it freezes over cold winter nights."
Despite this, a survey showed 41% of farmers plan to cut the number of labourers they employ and invest in machinery.
Cultivation methods are steadily changing worldwide, although South African plough salesman needn't panic quite yet.
Traditionally, farmers have trawled 1m deep to try to break a deep-lying plough pan, before several other cultivation passes.
But given that you could probably fry an egg on the 70C soil, a growing number of farmers are switching to reduced tillage and cover crops to provide some protection to the parched soil.
Average annual rainfall in the central belt is 500mm, while summer temperatures can reach 40C, so conserving moisture is vital.
About 10% of arable land is direct drilled, but we hope to move a tiny bit closer to Argentina's 80% over the coming years," says Wynn Dedwith.
Markets and future
International trends are quickly reflected in the South African markets.
So South Africa, like the economies of many countries that predicted a decade of high prices, hit a brick wall and prices tumbled by 22% in 2009.
Things have improved since, but the value of maize still varied by 41% last year.
Processors, sellers and suppliers are eating up much of the potential profit in the agricultural sector. The more of these stages that farmers can be involved in, the better.
It may mean capital investment in a company or infrastructure to become a more important cog in the farm-to-fork chain.
While machinery manufacturers see the southern tip of Africa as ideal to launch their technical assault on traditionally basic farming practices, the South African market is swamped with Asian influence.
The most developed countries - South Africa, Morocco and Tunisia - account for almost half of the 25,000 new tractors sold across Africa each year. Of those, 80% fall into the sub-100hp bracket and have two-wheel drive.
As ever, John Deere has gobbled up the largest chunk of the market - 36% to be exact. There's a rare appearance near the top of the rankings for Landini, whose extensive dealer network has kept 22% of the market blue.
The usual suspects follow, with Massey Ferguson (14%), New Holland (12%) and CNH partner Case IH (7.5%).
But, for those who fancy something different (or a little cheaper), there are other options Claas and Valtra makes including Foton, Goldini and Jinma have appeared and JCB has just joined in.
The other 14? YTO, Farmtrac, Mahindra, TAFE, SAME, Deutz Fahr, Lamborghini, Belarus, Indo-Trak, Kubota, Hinomoto, Agrico, Bell, TYM.
|Tony and Manuel Da Costa: Manjoh Ranch, near Johannesburg |
Travelling around South Africa, the difference in farm size and mechanisation is telling.
We spent most of our time on larger-scale farms, where we noticed a split between those upping horsepower and working width and those downsizing.
Tony and Manuel Da Costa have decided on the latter at their Manjoh Ranch farm. It covers 5,500ha near Johannesburg, of which 2,800ha is made up of maize and soya beans. The farm also has 20,000 beef cattle.
Despite a growing acreage they decided to cut back on horsepower.
"We first conducted no-till trials four years ago," says Tony Da Costa. "We were warned to prepare for yield drops for the first couple of seasons, but they just didn't come."
The biggest change since implementing the no-till system is in the machinery fleet.
Monster Steigers and 9m drilling rigs have been replaced with more modest 170hp Valtras, with 6m drills hooked on the back.
"We have fewer tractors working because we've cut four operations - the disc, deep rip, plough and drill - into a single pass," says Tony.
"We can travel with lighter-weight units and we've cut tractor hours from 1,800 to 500 hours/year."
The change has saved hours of downtime. Parts and service are a big problem in South Africa - not least because it's an enormous country - and a tractor can be parked up for a week waiting for a spare part. "We've gone from 2% no-till to 100% no-till in the space of a couple of years. It's cut our horsepower requirements at no expense to yield," says Mr Da Costa. "After all, you can't buy moisture."