The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Wheat Production Declines, High Costs Cited

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Wheat.

ZIMBABWE'S wheat production has declined since it costs more to grow it than import, even when transport costs are factored in.

The country only started growing wheat after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 when the illegal Ian Smith regime was hit by sanctions.

It was never an economic decision to grow the crop.

Economists have suggested that it would make more sense to use the irrigation capacity and water as supplementary irrigation in dry summer spells to ensure larger harvests of export crops like tobacco and ensure there are no failures in the maize crop.

Agricultural economist Mr Midway Bhunu said it was more profitable to concentrate on something that gives corporate advantage in terms of production.

He said wheat had always been a complex crop for the country with the situation worsening in 2008 due to economic hardships.

"To address the issue of wheat, we should look at the whole value chain. Imports may seem cheap but we get low quality produce and they also burden the already burdened Government."

Mr Bhunu said water and electricity had always been the major causes of the drop in wheat production.

"Other countries have alternative sources of energy. We should consider looking at renewable sources of energy to reduce costs.

"Government should concentrate on research and development of wheat varieties that can give high yields under the country's climatic conditions," he said.

The cost of importing a tonne of wheat is US$530, while it takes a local farmer US$540 to produce the same tonne.

This has seen millers preferring to import, instead of relying on the local crop that has become expensive to produce.

Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe national chairman Mr Tafa-dzwa Musarara echoed similar sentiments.

"Producing locally is not viable and has not been viable even for other crops, but we cannot rely on imports 100 percent.

"We will not get anywhere with the imports. In the long run, you will realise that it is better to produce our own food."

Mr Musarara said millers at one time contracted farmers, but abandoned the programme due to high risk.

"Some of the farmers failed to achieve expected yields due to several reasons while others side marketed to avoid paying back loans so we realised it was much cheaper to import," he said.

However, acting Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Ignatius Chombo said importing wheat from neighbouring countries was not the solution.

Minister Chombo said production could improve if Government invested in agriculture.

"Importing is not the solution. It may appear cheap at first, but in the long run it is expensive. Why should we support farmers in other countries instead of paying our own farmers? We are keeping South African companies in business when ours remain dormant and docile.

"What will happen if we go to war with these countries we are importing from? We need to produce our own food and this will only be possible if we fund our agriculture," he said.

Zimbabwe Farmers' Union second vice president Mr Berean Mukwende said wheat had always been grown as part of Government policy to boost food security.

"In other parts of the world, wheat is produced as a summer crop while in Zimbabwe it has to be irrigated and produced in winter to escape the problem of rust," said Mr Mukwende.

"This makes it more expensive to produce the crop than to import it."

It costs between US$700 and US$800 to irrigate a hectare of the crop, which makes it difficult for farmers to break even after marketing the crop.

The cost of producing a hectare minus electricity costs stands at between US$350 and US$500 for inputs and labour, according to permutations done by ZFU last season.

The costs have been rising this season, forcing many wheat producers to abandon the crop.

For output to be viable, farmers feel electricity tariffs of about US$0,03 per kilowatt per hour rather than the US$0,14 per kilowatt per hour being charged could be reasonable.

A Bindura wheat farmer said he abandoned the crop this season.

"I did not grow wheat this season. There were just too many costs, challenges and very little profit in the end," he said recently.

In the 2008/9 agricultural season, Zimbabwe recorded its worst performance in the history of wheat farming.

The country managed to harvest a meagre 6 893 tonnes of the cereal, a figure that left it having to heavily rely on imports to bridge the huge deficit.

Zimbabwe needs about 450 000 tonnes of the cereal annually for bread making and other purposes.

The country harvested 87 515 tonnes of wheat in the 2007/2008 season and 150 487 tonnes in the 2006/7 season.

Despite the dismal showing in the 2008/9 season, there was some slight ascent in the 2009/10 season with the wheat tonnage reaching 19 998 before leaping to 24 699 the following season.

But the figure was to decrease to 16 176 tonnes last season.

Banks were also not forthcoming with loans, with few companies willing to contract farmers.

Government offered to buy wheat at US$466 per tonne, a price seen as unviable.

GMB took too long to pay those who delivered the crop.

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