EDITORIAL COMMENT: Farmers must prepare for below normal rains

The Chronicle

Farmers across the country are finalising their preparations for the summer agricultural season which is expected to start next month. The well-resourced among them have already bought inputs and have prepared their fields, ready for the onset of the rains. On the other hand, the Government has since June, been providing free inputs to the less well resourced farmers.

There is much excitement among farmers not only because of the favourable rains that have fallen over the past two farming seasons, but also the tens of millions worth of support that many of them have been receiving from the Government through the Command Agriculture initiative.

These two factors have helped farmers to record big harvests of a number of crops, especially maize, tobacco and small grains. The food insecurity of the olden days has indeed become a thing of the olden days; a thing of the past.

However, the optimism will have to be tempered by the forecast by the Meteorological Services Department that the country might experience normal to below normal rainfall in the 2018/19 agricultural season.

This negative prognosis will show in most Southern African countries, except Tanzania, according to a consensus forecast produced by the 22nd Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum (Sarcof) held in Lusaka, Zambia, late last month.

As usual, the forecast is divided into two parts, covering October-November-December 2018 and January-February-March 2019. It shows that areas likely to receive “normal to below-normal” rainfall between October and December 2018 include eastern Angola, the extreme northern and southern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), western and southern Madagascar, southern Malawi, most of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as most of Namibia and South Africa, except the western parts of the two countries along the Atlantic coast. Only Tanzania is projected to receive “normal to above-normal” rainfall over the same period, with the north of the country expected to get “above-normal to normal” rainfall, suggesting possible flooding in that zone. In some seasons, the prediction sometimes becomes positive in the second half of the season, that is from January to March of the following year but Sarcof warned that there is unlikely to be a change in the first three months of next year.

The agricultural risks associated with normal to below normal rainfall include limited water availability, poor grazing areas and heat stress that could affect both crops and livestock.

Thus we are concerned that the negative forecast might cause much damage to food security in our country and the Sadc region.

To minimise the adverse impact of the projected El Nino phenomenon, our country can activate a few response mechanisms.

At the farm level, we urge farmers to commit portions of their land to maize varieties that tolerate moisture stress and mature earlier. These can give the farmer a return even if rains are little or only fall for a short time as the forecast says. Given that the rains are likely to be erratic, farmers could stagger their plantings throughout the season instead of planting just once at the onset of the rains or later when the season is established. By doing this, farmers will be able to spread their risk more evenly across the wet season. If a crop from one planting fails, chances are that the other crops in another planting can do better.

Yet another form of insurance is for our farmers to begin to grow more small grains, of course without completely ignoring maize and tobacco.

Furthermore, the importance of investing in irrigation facilities cannot be overemphasised. A farmer who is able to irrigate his fields is more comfortable than the one who relies on rain-fed production.

For livestock producers, we encourage them to start taking up more controlled grazing through fencing off portions of their farms for those who don’t rely on communal grazing.

After doing this they must allow their animals to graze on certain portions of their farm at a time before they move them to others. This can assist in saving up pastures which will be impossible if they allow their animals to roam their pastureland, depleting them more easily and indiscriminately. It is important to note that the paddocks will have to be properly protected against possible veld fires. Fireguards will be helpful in this regard.

We have to remind our farmers that we are in the fire season now, so instead of making paddocks, livestock producers might need to actually make hay just in case their pastures get burnt.

At another level, farmer associations and the Government can help the farmer navigate through the normal to below normal rainfall by promoting more investment in research and improved access to financial resources. They can strengthen capacity for the dissemination of research technologies to farmers, particularly smallholder producers, who are the backbone of the agriculture sector in our country. Access to reliable information is critical for planning purposes, especially when farmers want to diversify into new crops or livestock.