16 March 2017

Zimbabwe: Good Harvest Still Possible

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MANY analysts have expressed concern over the food situation in Zimbabwe following the recent heavy rains, Cyclone Dineo and the outbreak of the fall armyworm in the country.

The skies have really opened up and most parts of the country have received more than adequate rainfall.

In some situations, the heavy rains have caused flooding and water-logging.

Floods occur when there is a heavy downpour in a short space of time, leading to a lot of water accumulating on the surface.

When the water level rises, it builds up some awesome force that can sweep away houses as well as infrastructure such as bridges and even humans and animals.

Sometimes those downstream only get to know that there has been rainfall upstream by a heavy river flow.

In such situations, many inhabitants have been caught unawares and have in some cases been marooned on islands or rooftops as rising water levels suddenly threaten their lives.

Floods also wash away crops and livestock.

However, the heavy rains have also generally been accepted by farmers as most have managed to produce very good crops.

As one travels across the country, one is greeted by stretches of healthy maize and other crops looking green and heavy.

Most of these crops are showing prospects of very good yields.

Heavy rains, however, also come with leaching of soil nutrients, mostly nitrogen, thereby leading to yellowing of most crops.

This leaching is worse in sandy soils or where the crop had not received enough basal fertiliser.

Most communal areas lie in marginal areas with sandy soils and are therefore prone to leaching.

Communal farmers largely get inputs from relatives who work in towns or from government schemes such as the Presidential Inputs Scheme and therefore are not in a position to add more top-dressing fertiliser once their lands have been leached.

The yellowing of crops following leaching has been compounded by the shortage of top-dressing fertilisers on the market.

There was increased demand of top dressing fertilisers already due to an increase in the area planted to most crops.

The area under maize increased by 61 percent from 773 968 hectares (ha) to 1 243 624ha, while the area under cotton increased by 49 percent from 105 000ha to 155 000ha this year.

Areas under other crops such as sorghum and millet also increased.

While local companies promised to avail adequate supplies of both basal and top-dressing fertilisers, serious shortages of inputs were experienced and emergency measures had to be put in place to import a lot of urea and ammonium nitrate in December and January.

Most crops were saved as farmers received their top-dressing fertilisers just in time or as the maize was starting to tassel.

Thanks to the continuous rains, most crops have recovered from the yellowing and are expected to give good yields.

While many farmers have over the years been able to farm without paying attention to their conservation works, this season it was a completely different situation as lands without conservation works were easily flooded or water-logged.

However, most crops also do not like "wet feet", in other words, they will not grow if the soil is water-logged.

Water-logging means that there is no space in the soil for any air and most crops will simply start yellowing and eventually die.

Flooding and water-logging was worsened by Cyclone Dineo which mostly affected low-lying areas of Masvingo, the Lowveld and Matabeleland provinces.

Many farmers have had to write off sections of their planted lands due to water-logging.

Initial estimates are that such cases do not, however, form a significant portion of the country's crop to considerably affect the projected yields. In some cases, the early-planted maize had already matured.

This year also saw the outbreak of the fall armyworm, which attacks almost all the locally grown crops such as maize, sorghum, millet, rice, cowpeas, groundnuts, potatoes, soyabeans and cotton.

The pest, which also invaded South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and Malawi can cause up to 70 percent damage to any crop it attacks.

It is believed that the pest could have been introduced into Zimbabwe through the massive imports of grains from countries such as Zambia, as either eggs or pupae.

Worse still when it attacked, there was very little knowledge about its control as it tended to resist the available chemicals on the market.

A lot of damage was therefore experienced across the country. In Zimbabwe, it is estimated that the fall armyworm attacked about 130 000ha of cropland, mainly maize.

Government did not declare the pest a notifiable pest and hence did not provide free chemicals like it usually does with the ordinary armyworm.

Although the crop damage was widespread, it is believed that most crops have since recovered and therefore the effect on yields will be minimal.

The state of most of the early-planted crop varies from grain development stage to already matured, whilst the late planted December and January crop varies from knee height to tasselling stages.

Much of the maize is therefore out of danger of failing to get enough moisture to reach maturity or being severely attacked by pests once more and is therefore most likely to reach maturity.

Government recently indicated that the Grain Marketing Board still had over 250 000 metric tonnes of maize in its strategic grain reserves, which is enough cover for six months and should see the country survive without having to import until the harvests come in.

Despite the heavy rains, floods, water-logging and cyclone Dineo and the fall armyworm that hit the country this year, a good harvest is still expected to be achieved. While all these mishaps will contribute to a reduction in yields on some fields, a bumper harvest is expected countrywide.

Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa said government is expecting farmers to produce over three million metric tonnes of maize this season, up from the two million tonnes that had been projected earlier.

Peter Gambara is an agricultural economist and consultant based in Harare.

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