Strategies to reduce rural farmers’ vulnerability

Strategies to reduce rural farmers’ vulnerability
Smiles at a cattle bank.

Steers fetch high prizes when sold while in good condition


THE 2015/16 summer season has been declared a drought season as the rainfall pattern has severely affected crop plantings and growth this year.
Crop assessments by the Ministry of Agriculture have already indicated that there would be reduced harvests in many areas and no harvests in some areas.
The current drought comes on the back of another poor harvest during the 2014/15 season.
Most families are therefore not likely to have meaningful stocks of food.
There have been stories in the local media of families surviving on wild and domestic fruits.
However, most of these fruits have now run out by now and yet both government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not yet in a position to provide food relief to many of these families.
Drought, defined as deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time, can have economic, environmental or social effects on communities.
A drought will reduce crop germination, growth and yield, forest productivity, reduced water levels in dams and rivers, increased livestock and wildlife mortality rates and damage wildlife and fish habitats.
The social impacts occur when farmers are no longer able to make money from selling their crops and livestock due to the drought.
The decreased production will lead to higher grain prices resulting in some families failing to purchase grain for consumption.
The price of maize has since increased from an about US$6 to US$9 per bucket.
Drought is a climatic event that cannot be prevented; however, several interventions can be adopted to better cope with drought as well as to mitigate its impact.
Such measures include the careful selection of crops, like the use of short season varieties that are drought tolerant, conservation practices, like the use of tied ridges to make sure water does not quickly run off from the field, but is instead made to penetrate the soil to benefit the crops in the field; as well as basin tillage for fruit trees.
Farmers can also diversify their crops so that if one crop fails, another might survive. Some farmers also stagger planting dates with the hope that some will be lucky to receive rains at critical stages and reach maturity.
Drought means there is precipitation deficiency and the most logical solution would be to supplement the water available to the crops through irrigation. However, it is also critical that farmers use water more efficiently during droughts.
While farmers tend to over irrigate when water is abundant, during drought years they should concentrate on supplementary irrigation of the critical stages of crop development like flowering and grain filling.
Where possible and affordable, farmers can also move from less efficient irrigation systems to more efficient water application methods, like using drip systems instead of sprinkler irrigation or moving from flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation.
Besides the agronomic and conservation measures outlined above, farmers can also adopt income generating responses.
These include farmers disposing off some of their treasured assets.
Farmers normally start selling off small livestock like chickens, and then move on to goats and selling their cattle will be the last resort.
Farmers sometimes just engage in barter trade, where they swap the livestock for maize.
A bucket of maize (approximately 18 kilogrammes) now costs about US$9, which is equivalent to approximately two adult chickens at US$5 each. A goat normally sells for between US$20 and US$30 and therefore can buy a few more buckets of maize grain.
In livestock production, interventions can include evaluating the herd numbers and deciding to cull weak and less useful livestock.
It is estimated that over 16 000 cattle have already been lost in the dry areas of Masvingo and Matebeleland regions due to the drought.
The owners could have made decisions to sell the weaker cattle on time and at least salvage some income from them rather than watch them die.
Most small scale farmers want to keep their cows for breeding purposes as well as their oxen for drought purposes; therefore most steers can be sacrificed and sold while they are still in good condition so that they can fetch good prices rather than the US$20 per beast being offered now.
However, most farmers are reluctant to take such actions and this is where government should take a leading role to sensitise farmers of the dangers of keeping too many livestock in view of an impending drought.
It is also important that farmers practise strategic weaning of calves during a drought, as the production of milk rapidly depletes a cow’s body reserves, while the calf derives little benefit.
Weaning the calf gives both the cow and the calf better chances of survival.
However, the decision must be made taking into consideration the time of year and age of the calf.
Farmers should also make sure that they control parasites on their livestock.
Tick infested cattle are more likely to succumb to drought as they will be weak from opportunistic infections.
Other income responses that rural farmers adopt include gathering wild fruit for sale to urban folks e.g. mazhanje, brewing traditional beer (also called Seven days because it takes seven days to mature) for sale, gold panning, gardening, and sometimes migration to urban areas to look for jobs. However, the job market is currently dry.
Families also change their consumption patterns, reducing the meals to just two per day instead of the normal three. Rural folks also gather and use natural growing relish like nyevhe, howa and mushrooms, wild okra e.g. bupwe and baobab leaves. Some families dry these naturally growing relishes as well as cabbages, rape and cowpea leaves for use during the dry winter period.
A drought summer season means the amount of stored water in weirs and dams will be reduced, hence the need to conserve water now. A lot of water is lost through leaking weirs and dam walls.
In a normal set up, farmers do not take much concern over such spillage, however, in drought years like the current one, it is important that farmers take some time to repair these leaks to minimise water loss.
It is also essential that farmers capture as much water as they can lay their hands on as it rains.
Farmers can therefore design and construct rain water harvesting ponds and weirs with minimum resources. Farmers can also design rain runoff collection for immediate and future use from the roofs of their houses or from large rock surfaces. This water can be used to water horticultural crops or vegetables.
Farmers can also bulk up on fodder for the livestock and control their grazing to ensure that their livestock will have access to grazing during the winter dry period.
These include storing maize stover, groundnut hay and cutting and bailing grass from grassland areas. This is one area where government could provide a coordinating role and maybe use some of the tractors from Brazil and Belarus that still await distribution. The grass mowers and bailing machines can be purchased locally.
External coping strategies include receiving assistance from government and NGOs.
These programmes include public works programmes, supplementary feeding schemes for children, food for work programmes as well as Zunde Ramambo scheme.
It is the role of central government to monitor the drought and establish the extent of the drought and how the different areas have been affected. Different parts of the country will be affected differently, hence some areas will require more food assistance than others. – By Peter Gambara

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