Agri’s Q1 slump: Don’t worry too much, says economist

Wine and table grape harvests are up while oranges, apples and pears were harvested in record numbers. Grain and even pineapple harvests are up. The agri sector holds its footing for another good year

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Hamlet Hlomendlini, senior agricultural economist at Absa. Photo: Supplied
Its contribution to GDP might have taken a knock in the first three moths of the year, but agri’s growth prospects look good going forward, writes economist Hamlet Hlomendlini.

Notwithstanding its exceptional performance in 2020, agriculture’s percentage contribution to GDP fell by 3.2% in the first quarter of 2021. This while the rest of the economy expanded by 4.6% on a seasonally adjusted and annualised basis.

The sector’s decline in the first quarter, from a GDP perspective, was mostly due to a weaker performance in animal products as a result of significant decreases in cattle and sheep slaughter numbers.

Many people saw this drop as negative. What they fail to see, is that the sector’s negative GDP contribution did not imply that it did not grow in value terms. In fact, the sector grew substantially faster in value terms in the first half of the year compared to the same period in the previous year.

In addition, all data points indicate that the sector will have solid growth in the second half of the year, making 2021 another prospective good year for agriculture.

Wine and table grapes

For example, according to the most recent estimate from the industry group SAWIS (South African Wine Industry Information & Systems), the 2021 wine grape harvest is expected to amount to over a million and a half tonnes. This is 8.9% more than last year’s crop harvest. 

Wine grapes being harvested in the Western Cape. The 2021 wine grape harvest is expected to amount to over a million and a half tonnes. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The table grape industry has reported a total intake for the 2020-2021 season of 73 million cartons. This is significantly more than the 66.15 million cartons recorded last year. Exports have also grown significantly and is currently 13% higher than the previous season’s volumes.

The good performance on the table grape front has been attributed to good weather conditions in most regions of the Western Cape during the packing season, and to substantial investments made by farmers in recent years in replacing old varieties with new, higher-yield varieties.

Citrus exports

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On the citrus front, the Citrus Growers’ Association predicts another record citrus export of 160 million cartons in 2021, up from 146 million cartons in 2020.

If the forecast is realised, it will be the third consecutive season of record export quantities.

A total of 130 million cartons were exported in 2019 and 146 million cartons in 2020.

Furthermore, current predictions indicate a 22% growth in exports over the next two years. Soft citrus-producing regions are projected to show the most significant growth, with an estimated 30.5 million cartons for export in 2021, up 29% from last year. The late mandarin varieties in particular stand out within the soft citrus category, with an expected growth of 42% this year.

Apples and pears

South Africa’s apple and pear production is also set for a record export crop this season. Apple exports are expected to rise by 5% year-on-year to 38.4 million cartons. Pears are due to grow by 6% year-on-year to 17.9 million cartons. Over the last ten years, this export-oriented industry has witnessed a significant shift away from apple shipments to Europe and Russia, toward markets in Africa, the Far East and the Middle East.

Nevertheless, Europe remains an important market for the apple exports. But in terms of economic growth, population growth and market growth aspirations, Africa and eastern countries will become increasingly significant market destinations for South African agricultural exports.

Grains also up

In terms of grains, the Crop Estimates Committee predicts maize and soybean output of 16.2 million tonnes and 1.9 million tonnes respectively in 2020-2021. This is a 6% increase year-on-year and the second-largest harvest on record for maize, and a 54% increase in the harvest for soybeans. Other field crops are also projected to have bumper yields.

Summer grain and oilseed output is expected to be good due to expanded plantings and favourable rainfall since the season’s start.

Guava and pineapple

Even the guava and pineapple farmers are optimistic about this year’s prospects. The guava crop for 2021 is expected to be 23 500 tonnes. This represents a 3% increase from last year’s crop. 16 000 tonnes of the guava crop is expected be sent to the juice and pulp business, 6 000 tonnes to the fresh market and 1 500 tonnes to canning. The vast majority of the juice and pulp will be exported. Although higher prices are projected in the juice and pulp markets, production for the fresh market is significantly more profitable.

In terms of pineapple, the municipalities of East London and Ngqushwa are implementing a pineapple turnaround strategy. According to Thoko Didiza, minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development, her department has already started to assist pineapple initiatives through the CASP fund and Ilima/Letsema.

The programme’s principal goal is to repurpose unused land for pineapple production. The largest producing areas in South Africa are Kwazulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, which account for over 75% of the country’s output.

One clear message that emerges out of all this is that the sector remains on a good footing for another good year in terms of performance. Better production output prospects, increased market access and exports are expected to lead to an increase in jobs, particularly important in a country where employment opportunities, especially for young people, are currently scarce.

ALSO READ: Transformation can futureproof agriculture

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