Although the past winter was one of the coldest in at least two decades, things are still looking up for most farmers in Mzansi. That is according to Johan van den Berg, an independent agricultural meteorologist.
He says the colder conditions were in general positive for agriculture and even assisted the sector in some instances.
South Africans shivered across the country due to the freezing weather, with snow and heavy winter rainfall in many parts during the last few months.
“The distribution of rain over time and the amount of rain was very good for most of the winter, resulting in very good production conditions for winter grains and record yields are possible in many areas,” says Van den Berg. Rainfall was average to above average for winter rainfall areas.
He says in the Western Cape where winter grains are planted rain came just in time towards the end of May. “Winter wheat production was very good.”
Most rain in 20 years
Alfreda Mars, a grain farmer in Moorreesburg, experienced a couple of very dry years, but received above average rainfall in 2020. “It was the most rain in the area for 20 years,” she says.
It is exactly what the Swartland region needed and the harvesting prospects are looking good, she says. She will start harvesting at the end of October and start of November. “We hope to still get some late rain in September.”
Mars says the rain did come about ten days later than usual, which resulted in some early planted wheat not producing desired results. Another problem which farmers in her area experienced for the first time ever, was a bacterial disease as a result of a bit too much rain.
Van den Berg says the cold winter was not only positive in accumulation of cold requirements for winter crops, but also for fruit like apples, peaches, grapes and pecan nuts. “Some storm damage occurred in the first week of September, but it was not disastrous,” he says.
In summer crop areas very little rain occurred, but this is good as it allowed for summer crop harvests to be completed. Record maize yields were recorded in the central to western production areas.
Herman Janse van Rensburg, who predominantly farms with maize and sunflowers in Arlington, says it was an “abnormally cold winter”.
“We had several days in the minus temperatures,” says the Free State Agriculture young farmer of the year for 2019, adding that it did not have a big impact on his harvest.
One challenge he faced was that Janse van Rensburg had to start planting late last year. He could only start on 12 December, when in normal seasons he usually starts on 5 November. Although the season was late, which resulted in bad gradings for maize, they were lucky to receive good summer rains.
Climate expert Van den Berg says the cold winter can be beneficial in breaking the cycle of pests and diseases.
For Eric Mauwane it was a totally different story, as freezing temperatures took its toll. “It has been the worst winter ever,” says the vegetable farmer from Tarlton in Gauteng. “It has been a very tough year. First it was covid-19, then hail and then frost.”
On 14 April hail wiped out all the lettuce, red cabbage, broccoli and green beans he had planted, about 7.1 hectares in total. “And in mid-June we had a lot of frost. Both my green houses had peppers in, but it was damaged.”
They also didn’t get enough winter rain like in the Western Cape. “Every year we have broccoli and red cabbage on the open fields, except this year.” Mauwane says the only option is to go “undercover” as much as he can to limit possible damage of future frost.
Even drought-stricken areas received some welcome rain relief. Van den Berg says the very dry western parts of Namaqualand, including areas like Springbok, received the most rain since about 2012.
But the drought in the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and some areas of the interior of the Western Cape still continues. “There are still parts of the interior of the Northern Cape, like Pofadder and western parts of the Kalahari, that are in the grip of the drought.”
He says low levels of water in Eastern Cape dams, the Vaal Dam and Tzaneen areas are worrying factors.
Janse van Rensburg says the very cold Free State winter and August winds are hopefully signs that farmers in his area can look forward to a good summer.
According to Van den Berg forecasts are good for rainfall for mid to late summer. This also includes the current dry western interior and Namibia.
“Outlooks are positive that the agricultural sector can be the shining star in the current negative economic environment.”