MINOT KATENAIRE of Gorejena Village in Mt Darwin braves the light rains as he inspects his tobacco crop. It his first year in tobacco farming and the experiment seems to be bearing fruit. He has just finished applying top dressing fertiliser to the three-hectare tobacco plot and is happy that the rains have remained light and ideal for the crop's development. He stops to inspect the randomly selected leaves, examines for disease and insects and smiles. In his mind, there is a dream of dollars and cents. He prays no hailstorm hits the area for fear of losing his investment.
Minot is among the many farmers who have diverted into tobacco farming from the traditional cash crop of the area - cotton. Two consecutive years, low prices and reduced support have forced cotton growers to think of venturing into other cash crops.
According to the farmers it has increasingly become uneconomic to invest in cotton farming, as the crop is proving expensive to produce. The high cost of cultivation, low market prices, inconsistent export policy and problematic contract farming system, have seen farmers crying after getting little from their sales. This has made cotton growing an unwise investment.
"I lost out as a result of cotton farming so I drifted towards tobacco production. While I have not completely moved away from the cotton, I have drastically reduced the acreage. The crop is not paying.
"Actually I had to sponsor the hectare and half of cotton I have. I hope to get at least something because the contract farming system has been abusing me. Imagine getting US$50 a bale. Try to factor in transport and labour and you see how the Cotton Ginners' and Marketers' Association have been abusing us," he said.
Minot's situation summaries the death of cotton farming in the area that has seen the cotton acreage being drastically reduced.
Cotton prices continued on the decline on the international market in the past year or so, closing at a low of US80 cents from US88 cents per kg. The prices have seen local marketers paying a meagre US30 cents per kg of cotton lint. According to The Futures Magazine, a cotton sector monitoring magazine, though the international price could be relatively high than in previous years, they are actually very unattractive for farmers because production costs have also skyrocketed.
An agro-dealer based at Nyamhepo Business Centre in Ward 11, Mt Darwin, Mr Charles Chitauro of Nzeve Trading said not many farmers had taken to cotton farming this year owing to the low prices the crop was fetching on the market. Mr Chitauro said he had distributed only a few bags of Compound L that is used as basal dressing in cotton growing to a few people saying the fall in cotton crop acreage was caused by the dispute between cotton association and defaulting farmers.
"I only sold about 29 bags of Compound L used as basal dressing in cotton production to cotton farmers in the area. The rest of the 93 bags were maize and tobacco fertilisers. The fall in cotton acreage has also been caused by the fact that the area did not receive the normal supply of fertilisers from the ZFC and Windmill. Only Nico Orgo among the three traditional suppliers of fertiliser brought a consignment for the area," he said.
Mr Chitauro said he had been pushed out of growing cotton completely by the behaviour of the buyers who used the price war to assault and demean farmers.
"The companies were demanding you offset debts using cattle, goats, farming implements and sometimes your bed if your produce failed to cover for loaned inputs. Imagine young men probably between the ages of 19 and 20 assaulting old men and women on behalf of the companies over failure to settle their debts.
"They thought everyone who did not deliver enough to cover their loans was withholding the crop. They failed to consider that farmers had not produced enough due to the poor weather patterns and that the prices were making it difficult for them to offset their debts. I couldn't stomach this so I moved into tobacco production," he added.
Another farmer, Ms Catherine Tambudza, said the shortage of inputs had forced them out of the growing of cotton.
"We literally had nothing from our crop last season and hence could not secure fertilisers and seed to go back into the fields. The prices these companies were offering per kilogramme of cotton could not cover the price for fertilisers, chemicals and seed. The companies even denied us the inputs over unpaid debts. It was as good as growing crop on their behalf. This has forced us to go into growing of alternative crops serve for a few hectares. The seasonal cotton prices were a dangerous setback to farming in the area," she said.
Her sentiments were collaborated by Agritex officers in the area who said cotton companies had only given inputs to those farmers who had paid their inputs in full for last season. They said cotton companies had actually held to the inputs thereby knocking off even those farmers who wanted to do cotton this season. This they argued has lowered the total cotton acreage in the area.
Mr Clayton Maganga, an Agritex officer, said in his area farmers had an average of half an acre of cotton that a result of a combination of factors among them prices and unavailability of inputs.
"Cotton companies offered inputs to farmers who had paid their debts in full and this forced those farmers who were left out into other crops. Some of them are now cutting stems of last year's crop so that it reshoots with some using returned seed.
"Most of them are trying their luck on tobacco and with the amount of rains we are getting the farmers are likely to get a better crop.
"Others had hoped to try soyabeans but the company that had promised to contract them did not come back forcing farmers to opt for maize," Mr Maganga said.
The fall in cotton production in Mt Darwin has been replicated in other cotton producing areas after two-year fall in returns for growers. Cotton Ginners' Association director-general Mr Godfrey Buka said the agreed pricing formula used in Zimbabwe took into account three variables, namely the growers' cost of production; the ginners cost of production; and the international lint price at the time the lint is sold. He said the association could only pay a price that would keep their members in business.
Zimbabwe Farmers' Union second vice president Mr Berean Mukwende said ZFU was aware of the decline in cotton production in the country and particularly in high-rainfall areas such as Hurungwe and Mt Darwin.
Farmers in drier areas like Gokwe and Chiredzi and all areas in Lowveld have, however, remained with the crop because they have no alternative.