Poor farming season adds to Zim’s woes

ZIMBABWE’S battle against an obdurate economic crisis now in its second decade is likely to get tougher as a gloomy farming season will force the country to use scarce foreign currency for food imports, with nearly half of its crops seriously affected by poor rainfall among other factors.

Hazel Ndebele

Zimbabwe, once Sadc’s food basket, is going to rely on imports longer than anticipated at a time government is broke and struggling with the civil service wage bill.

According to minutes compiled following a recent meeting of the Zimbabwe National Agriculture Steering Committee, which were seen by the Zimbabwe Independent, about 40% of the crop had been severely affected by end of January.

The minutes state that the biggest challenge was late and inconsistent rainfall, weed pressure coupled with high leaching due to incessant rains, in addition to the perennial lack of top dressing fertiliser.

“The season started late in most areas and yields have been potentially reduced due to late planting. The long season crops such as cotton, ground nuts and tobacco could also be affected,” read the minutes.

The preliminary update on the performance of the 2014/15 agricultural season in the department of livestock production and development, shows that the country is also expected to import milk.

Milk production during the assessment was at 55 million litres per annum, against a national requirement of 120 million litres. The balance will be met through imports.

The steering committee, which is also responsible for the compilation of the crop and livestock assessment report, says the process has been slowed down by limited funds.

“The need for a comprehensive assessment is particularly critical this year due to the variability in rainfall performance and crop condition across the country. (The) Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development has received US$190 000 from Treasury against a requirement of US$435 000. We have therefore appealed for more funds to carry out the assessments,” the minutes read.

The ministry said the production of questionnaires for the report is underway and a sample of 30 households per ward would be interviewed in all wards of the country.

But according to senior sources at the ministry, there are indications the country will face serious food shortages this year and the country would require much more food assistance than anticipated.

“This is going to be the worst year in recent memory as we will most likely face a serious maize deficit. Areas which have in the past been doing well, particularly Mashonaland West and Mashonaland Central, are in a sorry state, not forgetting the southern part of the country which is already experiencing food shortages,” the source said.

The yield has been revised downwards owing to the dry spell which hit most parts of the country late last year and the beginning of this year, followed by excessive rains which seriously affected the maize crop in most areas.

According to the Meteorological Services Department, the average dates for the onset of the rainfall season range from November 13 to December 7. But generally, the season has been characterised by a late start with most areas receiving rains from December 22.

Although some areas received rains earlier than expected in October 2014, they then experienced a dry spell until December 3 signalling a false start to the wet season.

The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union has said 1,2 million metric tonnes of maize are expected this year.

However, former finance minister Tendai Biti contradicted this saying: “The Grain Marketing Board will not receive more than 600 000 metric tonnes this year and yet they (Zanu PF) have no idea of the great armageddon that is coming.

“We are consuming more than we are producing and the countries we hope to import from like South Africa have their own people to feed.”

South Africa is this year expecting a surplus of at least 100 000 tonnes of white maize, enough to meet its needs.

Zimbabwe has been importing from Zambia, which in the past used to buy Zimbabwean maize. This year it has recorded a bumper harvest and plans to sell as much as one million tonnes of its white maize surplus.

Economist John Robertson said the reason why the country was in this situation is because commercial farming was replaced by small-scale farming after the country’s chaotic land reform programme which saw production fall dramatically.

“Government has caused this problem and the only way to be the food hub we used to be is to put back the land in the market and allow large-scale growers to do their job,” Robertson said. “Most of the land redistributed to new farmers is underutilised and lying idle because small-scale growers simply farm what is enough for their own consumption and not to feed the nation; they do not have the equipment such as irrigation systems in case of a bad season which is why commercial farming is essential.”

“The country is going to import more, but we will import more mealie-meal as compared to grain because our neighbours have their own people to feed as well, the country will need much more assistance in terms of food aid.”

While speaking at Kutama Mission centenary celebrations in Zvimba a fortnight ago, President Robert Mugabe said he is disappointed by black farmers who are underutilising land given to them under the country’s land reform programme.

“It is out now that quite a good many of those who got farms on the A2 system are not running them. (They say) “I’m a farmer, I have a farm, but what are you producing? That’s what we want to know. (Not) to just have a farm where most of it is just pasture for cattle and you are not looking after the cattle too,” he said, warning government would carry out a land audit on A2 farmers to establish how each farmer was performing.
Agronomist Thomas Nherera said part of the problem is that farmers are moving from food crops to cash crops.

“Farmers are now looking at the return of the dollar invested and cash crops like tobacco assure the farmer of that return, unlike food crops such as maize which usually face delay in terms of payment,” he said.