Grain shortages: Where are we getting it wrong?

The 2012/13 summer season is almost over and it is clear that the country’s grain harvest will once again not be sufficient to meet the country’s needs.

Opinion by Peter Gambara

Zimbabwe normally plants about two million hectares of maize every summer season, and at an average yield of 0,7 tonnes per hectare, the country harvests about 1,4 million tonnes.

However, this year’s yield is likely to be much less than this. It is time to introspect as to why we seem to be getting it wrong so often.

As the season approached, the Meteorological Department, as usual, predicted that the country would receive normal to above-normal rains, but as we look back, the season was far from normal. In most cases, the rains came too late to save the majority of the maize crop. It is clear from these weather patterns that this is a visible departure from the normal. In most areas, crops were a complete write-off

Our Met Department is failing to give an accurate prediction of the rainfall pattern and we begin to think they either do not have the right equipment or adequately trained personnel.

The world over, weather experts now point to climate change caused by uncontrolled gas emissions, particularly by the leading industrialised nations.

Climate change refers to any significant change in temperature, rainfall or wind patterns, among other effects, over several decades or longer. The current climate change is caused by global warming, a general rise in average global temperatures caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

There is a lot of research and advice on how farmers can cope with this new phenomenon.

Most strategies place emphasis on providing accurate information to farmers and farming experts so that they are able to adjust their plans accordingly. However, our Met Department has not been able to do this and insists on selling weather information to farmer organisations for distribution among their members.

The other reasons for our failure to get good harvests seem to stem from poor agronomic practices by our small-scale farmers, who traditionally produce more than 75% of the maize crop. Special situations require special tactics.

Some techniques that farmers can consider when the season is likely to be short include water conservation and planting early, especially where there is irrigation. Such crops will have high yield potential arising from the long growing period and prolonged heat.

Farmers should also consider conservation tillage techniques that will keep moisture in the ground such as no-till and tiered ridges. They may also consider using crop varieties which mature in the shortest possible time.

Most small-scale farmers cannot afford to apply adequate fertiliser and rely on cattle manure. They are also not able to fully control weeds, which take some of the moisture and nutrients away from the crops. When applying top dressing fertiliser, farmers should make this coincide with the wet spell to speed up its uptake.

The distribution of inputs such as seed and fertiliser is sometimes riddled with corruption and victimisation where those alleged to belong to the “wrong” party are denied these. Malawi and Zambia to our north have proved that if such schemes are run well, they can alleviate the perennial problem of food shortages.

Those in dry areas (Natural Regions IV and V), such as the southern parts of the country, should be encouraged to consider planting small grains as these require less rainfall compared to maize. The question is: How many farmers know these techniques?

On the bigger picture, the economic hardships and subsequent low salaries offered to civil servants have seen a brain drain of qualified personnel from the civil service. The posts of experienced agricultural extension officers have had to be filled with inexperienced personnel.

Government has also failed to incentivise maize production by not paying farmers promptly for maize delivered to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). Maize by its nature is a low viability crop. It costs US$500-US$700 to grow a hectare of maize and if one achieves a yield level of less than 2,5 tonnes per hectare, they will not be profitable.

The inability by GMB to pay farmers promptly has driven most to deliver to private buyers, who pay less than the US$285 per tonne floor price for maize set by GMB. The net effect of all this is that farmers have been discouraged from growing maize, resulting in a significant drop in outptut over the years.

Having looked at the above scenarios, the question remains; what now? The solution is not a simple one, as several interventions should be taken at the same time. First, government should provide its extension officers with adequate resources.

Second, government should properly equip the Met Department and ensure its staff receive adequate training. Without the latest technology, the department is likely to lag behind other countries in accurately predicting the weather patterns. Information provided by the Met Department should also be user-friendly for farmers and should be provided free of charge.

Third, government should promote and incentivise the growing of commercial maize by farmers through ensuring that government-sponsored inputs reach the intended farmers on time and that when farmers have produced the crop and delivered it to GMB, they are paid on time.

Gambara is the chief agricultural consultant at Agri Expert.