AGRICULTURAL production is forecast to hit a record low in the 2003/4 season as less than 40% of land normally put under crop has been prepared for planting.
Farming experts who carried out a survey recently said less than 200 000 hectares of land had been prepared for planting in the commercial farming sector while an estimated 220 000 hectares was prepared by communal and newly resettled farmers.
Under normal circumstances, crop production should take up 1,3 million hectares.
This week the government appointed a committee to transform Agribank into a fully-fledged land bank by October 1. The new bank will be tasked with disbursing $60 billion to farmers for this season.
This, observers said, offered no relief to agriculture, as farmers would not be able to access loans in time for planting.
“As has become the norm with government’s input schemes, the financing will not improve production because it is coming way too late,” said an agro-industrialist. “Worse still, the money is coming into the system when there is a serious shortage of fertiliser, seed and fuel.”
The survey by agricultural experts said the fall in production would be exacerbated by the high degree of uncertainty prevailing in the agricultural sector.
It said continued evictions of farmers has resulted in a substantial decline in the planting of major crops such as maize and tobacco over the past three years.
Production in the commercial farming sector has been in decline since the government embarked on the arbitrary land reform programme in 2000. About 400 commercial farmers remain on the land out of some 4 500 before the land seizures began.
“Reductions in commercial plantings since the beginning of the land reform programme in 2000 are: flue cured tobacco by 72%; maize 72%, cotton 95%, and soyabeans 70% including hectarage planted by A2 farmers,” said one agriculturalist.
“The total area of crops grown has dropped from normal levels of around 530 000 hectares to approximately 220 000 by last season. A further considerable plunge in cropping activities is inevitable this year,” he said.
The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) said the 2003/4 season could be the worst year in Zimbabwe’s agricultural history as all factors are unfavourable to production.
With less than a month to go before the first rains are expected, the availability of fertiliser and seed is shrouded in uncertainty. Local manufacturers have for the past three seasons failed to meet demand due to foreign currency shortage hampering imports of vital chemicals. Production levels of the vital inputs have also been hampered by government’s price controls.
Inputs expected in the market are likely to be inadequate for even half the traditional hectarage normally put under crop.
All inputs starting from seeds, fertilisers, chemicals and draught power are projected to be in short supply in the coming season. The government’s District Development Fund, which normally offers tillage in communal areas, recently said it would only be able to till about 100 000 hectares due to lack of spare parts for most of its tractors.
The CFU said the two big fertiliser companies — Zimbabwe Fertiliser Company and Windmill — had by August reported zero stocks as products were sold out soon after manufacture.
In a report to the Land, Agriculture, Water Development, Rural Resources and Resettlement Parliamentary Portfolio Committee last week, major seed and fertiliser companies admitted they would not be able to meet demand for this year’s farming season. The report said the companies were operating at below capacity.
Officials at the fertiliser companies confirmed that they were failing to meet demand. Back order lists are lengthy. Meagre supplies of ammonium nitrate from Sable Chemicals, which can only supply 11 000 tonnes per month, are being delivered. The supply constitutes only 50% of the maximum potential of 22 000 tonnes per month to fertiliser distributing companies.
The CFU said the problem had been worsened by lack of forex to import anhydrous ammonia from South Africa.
“(There are) inadequate supplies of super phosphates from Zimphos because the company is experiencing severe problems moving raw materials from Dorowa mine to the factory in Msasa,” the CFU said.
“Fertiliser companies are suffering severe external and internal transport constraints due to National Railways of Zimbabwe being unable to operate at full capacity.”
Like the rest of the economy, the parastatal’s operations are affected by fuel shortages. Signal equipment is being stolen or vandalised. It now takes up to three months — instead of two weeks previously — to land raw materials from Richards Bay in South Africa.
The CFU said even supplies of fertiliser for the winter cereal crops were inadequate because of these factors.
“Government ordered 57 000 tonnes of compound fertilisers and 40 000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate for its winter crop inputs supply programme. The industry only supplied 18 000 tonnes in total,” the CFU said.
Another critical shortage would be that of maize seed. Production of maize seed has been slashed by over 70% over the past three years. The quality of the seed could also have been compromised as new players struggle to meet stringent standards of maize seed production.
“Under normal circumstances around 700 hectares would be put under maize seed each season,” experts said.
“Last season an estimated 200 hectares of maize seed was planted and between 10 000 and 15 000 tonnes of seed are expected to be delivered to the seed houses.”
Zimbabwe requires between 35 000 and 45 000 tonnes of maize seed each year. The demand is likely to increase in the coming season as government has urged resettled farmers to plant the staple crop. Two weeks ago government announced a new producer price for maize from $130 000 per tonne to $300 000.
The CFU said maize production by commercial farmers has fallen from 810 000 tonnes in 2000 to an estimated 80 000 in 2003. The fall of production this season has seriously affected maize seed production and a shortage of seed will limit production next year.
“Wheat production has fallen from 280 000 tonnes in 2001 to 115 000 tonnes in 2002. Production in 2003 will be limited by shortage of water in dams and river systems, and lack of infrastructure such as irrigation equipment. Marketing of wheat, which is controlled, will also not encourage the few farmers who have irrigation facilities to grow wheat,” the CFU said.
The Agricultural Chemicals Industry Association said the industry estimates that the country should import a further 100 tonnes of Methyl Bromide which is the primary ingredient in the manufacture of most pesticides.
Tractors and machinery sections have also fallen victim to the shortage of forex as spares are very difficult to procure.
Production is also expected to fall as a result of serious reduction of land under irrigation.
“About 90% of current irrigation business is being conducted with A2 farmers but because of shortage of skilled personnel, the capacity of the irrigation companies to undertake large development projects is very limited,” said the CFU.
“New farmers are not achieving expected production levels due to lack of knowledge, skills, inputs and finance, implying that they cannot match production levels that previous commercial farmers were at,” the CFU said.
Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) spokesman Phil Chingwaru said his organisation was happy with preparations for the coming season.
“Small-scale and communal farmers who contribute 75% of the grain consumed in the country have actually increased their areas for planting,” Chingwaru said.
But he admitted that the shortage of inputs would seriously hamper production in these sectors.
“The major worry is not preparation but unavailability of inputs. Seeds are unavailable and fertiliser prices are too high. Such factors might force farmers to resort to planting untreated seeds and that might affect output.”