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Crucial two weeks to save crops

Economy

Nompumelelo Magwaza

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Maize farmers are expiriencing drought around the country.photo by Simphiwe Mbokazi

THE NEXT two weeks are critical in determining the outlook for domestic food prices during the year.

Summer grain crops, such as maize, sunflower and soya beans, were at a critical stage in their development, while the country was experiencing dry weather and extremely high temperatures, Grain SA (GSA) warned last week.

The dry weather caused white maize futures on the JSE on Friday to rise by R119 to R2 778 a ton, the highest price for local white maize since March. Since the end of January, when the dry spell started, the price of white maize has risen by about R800 a ton, or by 40 percent.

Jannie de Villiers, the chief executive of GSA, said: “We have seen large areas where the damage is already irreversible. We have seen irrigation maize being cut off for silage, probably due to load shedding.

“At this stage, rain in the next week can, at best, get us to a breakeven situation, but the odds are against us. Very little rain is predicted for the period ahead,” he said.

De Villiers said the crisis was the worst in the white maize production areas in the western parts of the country. “The continued load shedding will also have a negative impact on stable production in the irrigation areas.”

The eastern production areas, such as Mpumalanga and the Free State, where the majority of yellow maize was produced, desperately needed follow-up rain.

“The probability of a surplus maize crop is less than 10 percent, based on what we have seen and all the reports from our members.”

The sunflower crop was also dying on the many hectares on which it had been planted, without even forming a flower.

“Many farmers in the western parts could not get any crop insurance as the foreign underwriters regard the area as too risky,” De Villiers said.

Thys Grobbelaar, an analyst at Senwes, said the maize crop had deteriorated since last week. “However, there were scattered rains that were experienced in different parts of the western and drought- stricken areas.”

He added that the greater part of the western area, where most of the maize was grown, was relatively dry. “The eastern parts, which include (Warden in Mpumalanga), were looking much better.”

Grobbelaar said should the dry weather conditions persist, food security might be affected, especially that of white maize.

“We might have to import, but the question is from where”, as white maize was not a commodity popularly exported. The US was one among a few countries that exported white maize and only in very small amounts, he added.

De Villiers

said the import infrastructure would also be put under pressure as the country had not imported substantial quantities of grain lately

.

Dawie Maree, the head of agriculture information and marketing at First National Bank, said the greatest concern was the soaring temperatures experienced in the maize planting regions, such as Mpumalanga.

“Yes we’ve got dry conditions in the North West and north-west Free State provinces, but the major problem currently is actually the high temperatures. There is still enough water available in some areas, however, the high temperatures put a lot of strain on the plants.”

Grain farmers were not the only farmers hoping for rain. The sugar industry has also been battling with its sugar cane crop since the dry spell began earlier this year. All cane growing regions have been affected, with areas such as Empangeni reporting a 40 percent year-on-year crop reduction.

Paul De Robillard, the vice-chairman of Gledhow Sugar Company in KwaDukuza in KwaZulu-Natal, said the province had had a fair amount of rain in January and February, but not the required amount.

He added that the rain had brought some relief, but had not countered the effects of the dry spell experienced in December.

Just like its competitors, Tongaat Hulett and Illovo, Gledhow Sugar Company has scaled down on its milling season.

“We all have been affected – in excess of between 25 percent and 35 percent of our first crop estimate – and very little has changed… we have to wait for the full season to (see) the real impact of the drought,” De Robillard said.

He said the next three months would be critical for the sugar cane crop.

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