THE summer season is almost three quarters gone and a lot of stakeholders are eager to know what’s in it for them.
Some of the questions stakeholders are now asking are; will there be good maize harvests? Will it be enough to feed the country without the need for imports? What will be the size of this year’s tobacco crop? What will be the quality? etc.
In order to be able to answer some of these questions, it is necessary to look at the rainfall pattern, the availability of inputs before the season started, the distribution of these inputs, especially in connection with the free Presidential Inputs, what areas have been planted to the different crops, the current state of the crops and any other challenges that might mitigate against the country getting a good yield.
It is now generally accepted that there was a late start to the rainfall season. Most areas did not receive adequate planting rains until about December.
Late rains affect the planting of the early maize crop as well as the planting of tobacco.
This year, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) had to postpone the start of the tobacco marketing season from mid February to early March because there was not enough tobacco to be sold by February.
That clearly shows that most of the crop is late. The late start to the summer season can be attributed to climate change that is now believed to be affecting the world over.
Besides the late start of the season as signalled by the onset of the rains, it is also important to look at the spread of the rains since then.
Generally the rains have been consistent in most areas and, in some cases there were floods. Heavy rains generally lead to leaching of soluble plant nutrients, leading to yellowing of most crops.
This is a problem in areas that do not have adequate drainage systems or where conservation works have not be maintained or put in place. There are also reports of some areas receiving inconsistent rains or experiencing long breaks in rainfall especially in the marginal areas.
However, the rains have given most farmers breaks to attend to their fields.
Most inputs were available in adequate quantities before the start of the season.
There is actually more maize seed available from seed houses than is required to plant the traditional two million hectares of maize.
Fertilisers were also available in abundance throughout the country, however, the resources to buy the inputs were a major challenge.
Most farmers grow maize and sell it to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) mainly because it offers the best price. However, it is now common knowledge that GMB is failing to pay farmers for delivered maize and wheat and this will definitely affect the ability of farmers to purchase inputs for the next season.
The blame rests squarely with government that has failed to provide GMB with the necessary funds to pay these farmers.
Banks have not been able to provide funding to a lot of farmers. Firstly, the issue of bankability of the 99-year leases remains a contentious issue, with government and the Bankers Association of Zimbabwe failing to agree on the amendments that will make these leases bankable.
In the absence of bankable leases, banks have no option bedsides demanding collateral security from farmers in the form of urban properties, which properties most farmers do not have.
Banks are also sceptical to sponsor the growing of maize where payments are known to delay due to the unavailability of cash from central government.
Most banks are keen to sponsor tobacco production where the marketing arrangements are well-known and payments are prompt and they can place stop orders on the growers’ accounts.
The challenge therefore remains for government to find workable marketing arrangements for grains in general and the operationalisation of the commodity exchange market comes to mind.
The commodity exchange market would be like the auction floors of the grain industry as government would not have to crack their heads looking for funds to buy the grains on offer.
However, it would still need to provide funding to purchase maize for its Strategic Grain Reserve. The market will be able to determine a fair price for the local market as local millers have shied away from the local maize market on grounds that local maize is overpriced.
In analysing the areas planted to the different crops, I will pay particular attention to maize and tobacco; maize because it is a staple food and tobacco because it is the biggest foreign currency earner for the county.
The areas planted to the different crops can only be determined with some degree of accuracy once the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development through its department of Agricultural and Technical Extension Service has finished conducting its First Round Crop and Livestock Assessment which is normally done in January every year.
However, figures from seed houses do indicate that we are likely to see a slightly bigger crop planted to tobacco, but slightly lower areas planted to maize. The tobacco yield is likely to be the same as last year as the majority of the crop was planted late.
As for maize while government increased the level of support for the Presidential Inputs Scheme, there are two factors that have worked against an increased crop this year.
Firstly, the distribution of inputs under the Presidential Input Scheme was not as smooth as last year.
The factional fighting that characterised the build-up to the 6th ZANU-PF congress, spilled over to the grassroots level, resulting in a lot of tension and finger pointing in the distribution process.
Secondly, most A2 and large scale producers did not have the resources to plant sizeable crops and, although this sector contributes only 25 percent of the national crop as shown below, the drop in production from this sector will be significant.
The general condition of the crop to date has been good in most areas save for a few areas where the crops are showing signs of leaching.
Most of the early planted maize crop has reached tasselling to soft dough stage while the December planted crop varies from knee height to tassling stage.
Any crop that is still below knee height is a late crop and risks not reaching maturity. Both early and late planted tobacco is now being reaped and cured.
The heavy rains in some areas have brought about false ripening of the crop and therefore have brought about pressure on some farmers to reap the crop more often.
Electricity availability has generally been good in the farming areas and therefore curing should progress smoothly in most areas.
The other crops of national importance include cotton and soya beans.
As for cotton, two major cotton companies, faced viability challenges last year and this means a reduced level of support for cotton growers.
However, government indicated that for the first time, this year the Presidential Inputs Scheme will cover cotton production and therefore it is hoped that the fall in support from the cotton ginners might be covered by the support by government.
The perennial depressed cotton prices are likely to impact negatively on the eagerness of most farmers to continue venturing into cotton production.
Some have moved over to tobacco production. Figures from seed houses have already indicated that the soya bean seed sold this year was down on last year’s figures; therefore the area planted to soya beans is reduced.
The 2014/15 summer season has been a success so far. Although the rains came late, they have persisted for the past two months and covered most parts of the country.
Although most crop inputs were readily available on the market, there were challenges with the necessary funding to purchase the inputs.
Therefore we are likely to see a slight reduction in maize harvests as well a stagnant or slightly reduced tobacco crop this year.
Peter Gambara is an agricultural economist and farmer