Much-needed rain in the past couple of months has helped to alleviate pressure on South African farmers in a number of provinces, but significant rainfall over the next few months is essential to ensure the full replenishment of irrigation dams, agricultural economists have warned.
“Eight provinces were declared drought disaster areas early in 2016, which indicates both the severity and extent of the drought,” said John Purchase, CEO of the Agricultural Business Chamber, this week.
Fanie Brink, an independent agriculture analyst, said the general outlook at the end of 2016 was much better than a year ago. “Grazing was restored very well in those areas that were blessed with good rains,” Brink said. But some areas remained dry.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is expected to release preliminary information later this month about the areas planted with maize and other crops such as soya beans and sunflowers, and the first harvest forecasts.
Purchase said these crops were looking good in the eastern and central areas of Mpumalanga, and in the eastern and northern Free State, but bad in the western Free State and the southern region of North West.
In those areas where the outlook was bad, “a number of farmers have not been able to plant because of a lack of finance and insufficient soil water”, Purchase said.
“Due to the decline in the national herd [cattle] as farmers were forced to sell off livestock, and with herd rebuilding now a priority, red meat supply will be constrained over the next couple of months, probably resulting in somewhat higher meat prices.”
Due to low dam levels and irrigation quotas being implemented in many irrigation schemes, vegetable and fruit production was generally constrained, and would probably remain so into the next season, Purchase said, because dam levels were expected to remain low.
He said the recently harvested wheat crop was estimated at more than 20% higher than the previous season’s 1.44million tons. But this still meant South Africa would have to import close to half its requirements.
Brink said the country had imported wheat for many years, “mainly because production is not very profitable and farmers are still struggling to get an appropriate import tariff”.
South Africa would continue to import maize until farmers started to deliver the “new season” maize from early April. “We will need to produce about 10 million tons of maize for human and animal consumption and to supply neighbouring countries, as well as to build up a million tons carry-over stock for next year,” Brink said.
Purchase said food inflation was expected to slow, but much would depend on the size of the maize crop and the impact on maize pricing, which oscillates between export parity and import parity, depending on supply and demand dynamics.
Other than access to markets, our other major problems have been finances, because the banks are refusing to fund anything now, and a lack of agricultural expertise
“Other factors, such as currency exchange rates, will also play a major role in determining food inflation,” Purchase said.
Brink said if there were good rains in the next two months, the impact on food prices would be low, “especially if we don’t have to import maize from about April/May”.
But Chris van Zyl, an assistant general manager for policy liaison at the Transvaal Agricultural Union, said it was accepted that consumers would to be prepared for increases.
Mandla Buthelezi, KwaZulu-Natal president of the National African Farmers’ Union, an association of emerging black farmers, said they had mixed feelings about 2017.
“In the central and North Coast areas of KwaZulu-Natal, planting normally starts during the first week of November. Although we had good rains in October, the sudden heatwave in November dampened our spirits. Even when you drive around KwaZulu-Natal you will see our biggest dams, like Jozini and Midmar, are not what we know them to be. Even big rivers like the uThukela have reduced quite significantly.”
Buthelezi said a handful of farmers had quit farming, despite the building of the King Cetshwayo Fresh Produce Market in Empangeni and a government procurement programme requiring public institutions to buy 30% of their fresh produce from black farmers.
“Other than access to markets, our other major problems have been finances, because the banks are refusing to fund anything now, and a lack of agricultural expertise. You can see just by talking to some of our members that they have given up hope,” he said.
Stephen Mohale, a farmer from Giyani in Limpopo and a supplier of tomatoes and spices to the Joburg Market and Tshwane Fresh Produce Market, said he had survived thanks to his many boreholes. “The drought was bad for the cattle … But the rains have been good lately and I have gone back to full production with my cattle.
“The only problem is that we are farming on trust land that is owned by the traditional authorities. We have approached the government for the land but it has been in vain. You can’t farm the way you want on land you don’t own,” he said.