Less than six years ago, farmers in the Free State were struggling to survive one of the worst droughts they have ever seen. Now, the same producers are facing disastrous downpours that quickly turned the season’s promise of good summer rains into devastation. Some farmers have already lost their crops and say the livelihoods of many of their peers in the province could be under serious threat.
Free State farmer and safety representative for Free State Agriculture (FSA) Andre van Rensburg tells Food For Mzansi that the level of threat to farming businesses in the province runs high.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” the livestock farmer states. “The rains came early and filled up the water table (underground boundary between the soil surface and groundwater) and now it’s saturated. There’s no drainage, almost. It’s stagnant and [the water] just stands like big ponds in the middle of the field.”
Van Rensburg says that while farmers in the affected areas are doing what they can to mitigate the damage, it is proving to make little difference in the unusually wet weather. “We’ve taken all the precautions that we can but there’s nothing else that we can physically do to save the crops.”
The cost of rebuilding
For Jakkals le Roux, who farms maize in Wesselsbron, the constant rains have been a disaster. He lost his entire crop and says the damages across the province make for a disappointing harvest.
“This year, the rains that we experienced filled the water table very quickly. This resulted in loads of water damage and the drowning of our crops. The percentage of damage to my farm is 100%. The crop is simply not growing,” says Le Roux.
He explains that the water table is so high that the mielies are simply standing in water. A mielie doesn’t grow when its roots are submerged in water.
The cost of rebuilding is a great concern for farmers. Le Roux, also chairperson of FSA’s rural safety committee, estimates that the damage to farms in his local region fluctuates between 60 and 100%. At this stage, the cost of inputs is incredibly high and does not make it any easier on farmers, he says.
“If you include seed, fertliser, diesel, labour and depreciation, all of your inputs added together amount to something like R13 000 to R15 000 per hectare. So, if you add it all up, a farm of 1 500 hectares for instance, will incur costs of about R19 000 000.
“Over a large area, it is a huge amount of money that needs to be brought in and you won’t find that sum of money just anywhere,” says Le Roux.
Van Rensburg agrees. He explains that when farmers take out loans to manage operational costs, these loans are usually repaid around harvest time, which will now – for many affected farmers – not bear any yield.
“Financially, these guys are in big trouble. We don’t know how many of the farmers will be able to stay on their land,” Le Roux states.
What’s worse is that farmers will not feel the blow now, but in July, August or September when the crops are supposed to come off the fields, Le Roux cautions. “We work in [a] six- or eight-month financial cycle. So, the farmers are not cash strapped now, but most of them won’t have the finances to invest in crop later.”
Farmers already under pressure
Farmers were already under pressure before the ruinous rains. In the last few years, input costs have increased exponentially. Fuel prices have also skyrocketed and seed prices have more than doubled.
And to add insult to injury, some of the affected farmers had experienced the same disaster last year. According to Le Roux, many of them are on their second or third disaster season due to the heavy rains, which has affected their cashflow.
“There isn’t really a solid cashflow for us at the moment because, at the end of the day, we need to pay our workers, we need to pay Eskom, there are loads of things you need to bear in mind to keep the [farming] process going.”
The National Disaster Management Centre met with stakeholders in the affected area, as well as other areas across the country. These regions have now been classified a national disaster. Le Roux hopes that the classification will give farmers grounds to negotiate with banks and other financial institutions for assistance.
“Or ask them to help us keep our farms by giving us an extension on the inputs we’ve just lost,” he says, “and, to help us obtain new inputs in the new season so that we can recover from this.”
More rains expected
Right now, farmers are hoping that the rains ease up to give them some chance of recovery. Le Roux says that, if the sun shines from now until about the middle of the year, they may be able to plant corn around April or May and have a harvest.
“Then we have to hope that it doesn’t rain early in the following season. Because if we get a lot of rain early in the season (around September or October), we are going to sit in the same situation [again].”
However, agricultural meteorologist Johan van den Berg cautions that more rain is expected in the second part of February.
“It seems that there will be some dryer conditions for the last week of January and the first week of February. Then, from the second part of February, there’s still rain expected. It’s very difficult to say if it will be heavy rain, but there’s a good chance there will still be some rain into the first part of March.
Sporadic rain could continue from March up until May, including in already affected areas.
The country is currently within a La Niña weather cycle and the rainy weather conditions are only to stabilise by next season.
Van den Berg points out, “The expectancy is that, next season, it will return more to its neutral conditions, and within the next two or three years we will again experience dry conditions. This is part of the normal climate and it’s a cyclic type of rainfall condition that we are experiencing.”
He cautions that, despite the current rainy conditions, farmers need to prepare for fire-prone conditions later this year.
“With lots of rain and lots of natural grazing developing, there will be a very high combustible load in winter. So I think that is the next big risk for South African agriculture after the very wet conditions. The risk is for nearly the whole country.”
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