May 1, which traditionally marks the start of the winter wheat planting season, has now come and gone and yet a lot of bureaucratic bungling, shortage of fuel and planting seed has bogged down the planting of wheat on the ground.
Many farmers are still waiting to receive the promised inputs and planting deadlines are fast approaching. Ideally, planting should stop by end of May and therefore only two weeks remain before that deadline.
While the command agriculture summer programme was hugely a success, government acknowledged that they had made a few mistakes and that they would work to make it smoother for the winter wheat programme. Many farmers received inputs late for the summer programme and this delayed planting right up to December in some cases.
When government announced its intention to fund the winter wheat programme under the command agriculture scheme, they promised farmers that they would get all the necessary inputs well in time. However, up to early this week, only fuel, which has been available in dribs and drabs, has been made available. Most farmers were yet to receive the necessary seed, fertilisers and chemicals.
Diesel is required by farmers to prepare their lands so that they can plant wheat, however, up until early this week, only small quantities of diesel had been made available. This has stalled the preparations by farmers. In some cases, farmers were allocated small quantities ranging from 200 to 500 litres irrespective of the area they intend to prepare.
In order to plant wheat, a farmer would ordinarily have to disc the land at least twice to achieve a smooth tilth. Each discing will need about 15 to 20 litres per hectare depending on the size of the tractor and the equipment being used. Unlike with maize planting, where most farmers used planters, there are very few farmers with seed drills.
Most farmers therefore have to broadcast the fertilizer using a vicon, disc it in before coming back to broadcast the seed and the use a roller to press it down onto the soil.
Broadcasting the fertiliser using a vicon will need seven to 10 litres per hectare, the light re-discing of the fertiliser will require another 13 to 15 litres per hectare. Broadcasting the seed will need another seven to 10 litres and rolling another 10 litres per hectare. It will therefore require about 70 litres to accomplish all the operations needed to plant wheat.
Normally, a farmer will also need to apply some herbicides immediately to control some notorious weeds and boom spraying will require 10 to 15 litres per hectare. However, farmers were allocated 200 to 500 litres so that they plant 10 hectares. This is totally inadequate. No explanations have been given for this slow release of the diesel. Farmers said they were promised 100 litres per hectare.
While some farmers have used the little diesel they got to prepare their lands, they have still not received any seed nor fertiliser and continue to wait for these inputs. No indications have been given as to when these farmers can expect the inputs. This is completely contrary to earlier promises that wheat inputs will be abundant and made available on time. It remains unclear why suddenly the inputs are not available.
The issue of the planting seed also seems to be causing problems for the programme. It appears when government announced that they would sponsor the growing of 50 000 hectares this winter; they had not consulted the seed houses on the availability of seed. The 50 000 hectares require 5 000 to 6 000 tonnes of seed and yet the country only had less than half the required amount. This only became apparent much later when commitments had already been made.
In order to overcome this programme, the planners are said to have decided to use commercial grain seed to fill the gap. Experts say it is acceptable for wheat growers to retain part of their harvested wheat for use as seed the next season. However, they then mix it with certified seed, so that it maintains some hybrid vigour.
Though this was initially the idea, it would appear the certified seed was all distributed before it could be mixed with the grain obtained from grain silos. Government then labelled it as “planting wheat” without any seed company putting its label on it. This has raised a lot of suspicion with farmers and some have since rejected the seed altogether and decided to quit growing wheat this winter. This is likely to lead to a reduction on the area planted.
Experts have also indicated that government could have arranged to import seed from South Africa where other Southern African countries are getting their seed. However, it would appear the funds to import the seed at short notice was not available, hence the decision made to use commercial grain as seed.
Many farmers have indicated that they are considering quitting the programme altogether because delays in planting wheat will have serious repurcations on their summer crop. It takes approximately 5 months for the wheat to reach maturity and therefore a crop planted around mid-May is expected to be harvested mid-October.
However, if a farmer delays planting into June, that means harvesting will also be delayed into November, thereby delaying the planting of the summer crop.
Prospective wheat farmers are also stuck with their summer maize crop, as they cannot secure the necessary combine harvesters to remove the maize so that they can plant the wheat.
The Minister of Agriculture, Joseph Made, is on record promising the nation that the ministry was importing new combine harvesters from France, but to date, nothing has been received.
Many companies that used to hire out combine harvesters have since folded, as they could not source the necessary spare parts for the equipment. A few lucky farmers, who were allocated combine harvesters by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe mechanisation scheme, have however failed to maintain them. Since these were allocated to mostly high-raking government officials, most of these owners are beyond reproach and in some cases have huge areas to combine for themselves before they can hire them out. Tied to the shortage of these combine harvesters, the modalities for the contracted farmers to hire combine harvesters remain vague. Farmers were promised that they would be issued with vouchers, similar to the fuel, seed and fertiliser vouchers they got when they were contracted to grow the maize.
However, those modalities are still to be agreed and most farmers are still to start harvesting their crops. Most farmers are low on cash reserves and were banking on getting money from that crop that continues to stand on the land to prepare for the wheat crop. They also needed the money to rehabilitate their irrigation schemes, which in some cases had not been used for a considerable number of years.
Most farmers who were contracted to grow maize on the command agriculture programme delayed in planting their crops and therefore most of the maize has still not achieved the maximum 13% moisture level that the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) will accept for delivered maize. In order for farmers to move on and plant wheat on time, it was necessary that farmers combine their maize and send it to driers to further reduce the moisture level to the desired level before delivering it to GMB.
However, only a few companies run such driers and most of these driers are fully booked.
A few unfunctioning driers were identified on some farms and these needed repairs. The Agriculture ministry promised farmers that they would be fixed before harvest time. However, to date these driers remain unfunctional. Farmers are therefore stuck with maize that still has high moisture levels, as they cannot combine harvest it. This continues to delay the planting of wheat.
The Department of Irrigation, which falls under the same ministry, promised to avail funds for irrigation scheme rehabilitation purposes, but to date bureaucratic delays have made it difficult for farmers to access the funds. The same department is said to have asked farmers also to indicate their requirements for additional irrigation laterals so that they could increase their areas under wheat, so that the country can achieve the targeted 50 000 hectares of wheat. The unavailability of money has caused delays in providing the pipes, two weeks into the planting season.
As everyone is basking in the success of the summer command agriculture progress, it should be remembered that the heavens opened up and farmers received huge down pours in summer. Winter is a completely different scenario; farmers will need to artificially apply water to the wheat crop.
If the irrigation schemes are not efficient and planting is delayed, this cannot be achieved and the yields will be low. It is essential therefore that government makes sure that farmers have the capacity to plant the wheat on time and that they will be able to apply the water to the crop as desired.
Made as well as Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa were on national TV recently telling the nation that prospective wheat farmers can proceed to collect inputs that were said to be available from GMB depots.
However, many farmers have indicated that they are yet to receive any inputs and that very few inputs are available at GMB depots. It is also surprising that the state media continues to claim that wheat planting is on track, when it is clear that it continues to be bogged down by bureaucratic bungling and shortage of funds.