Farmers feeling the cost crunch as load shedding continues

Picture: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Picture: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Published Sep 9, 2022


Johannesburg - Persistent load shedding is having a negative impact on farming production costs and productivity, rapidly driving up food prices and placing even more financial pressure on strained household budgets.

The importance of a reliable electricity supply for farming cannot be overstated. The efficient running of farming operations is heavily reliant on a dependable power supply.

Electricity is used for pumping water, operating packing facilities, and keeping cold storage units running on farms. When any of these processes are compromised, it can lead to dire consequences for farmers, consumers, and ultimately the economy.

Sarel Le Roux, an entrepreneur and farmer who operates a mixed farm in KwaZulu-Natal and is a prominent member of Potatoes South Africa, described how hard load shedding makes it for him to maintain the fine balance it takes for him to be able to run his farming operation and the devastation it causes.

“Here in Weenen in KwaZulu-Natal, for example, rainfall is sparse, and farmers rely heavily on field irrigation fed by nearby water sources such as the Bushman’s River. Additionally, temperatures drop as low as -4°C in the winter when we begin planting potatoes and reach as high as 44°C in the summer. And both extremes require careful temperature and soil moisture control using irrigation to avoid poor yields.”

“But during periods of exceptionally high load shedding, pumps don’t run, throwing irrigation schedules into disarray and risking crops going dry,” he said.

The effects of the power cuts are far-reaching and impact productivity negatively, which has a direct impact on the availability of produce.

The knock-on effects are that street vendors are unable to procure the stock they need in order to be able to make a living.

“Moreover, electricity supply interruptions affect pack house staffs’ work schedules. Just two bouts of load shedding per day of two hours each translate to half of the workday being lost, which means that only half of the available product amounts can go to market. This, in turn, reduces supply while increasing the costs of packing and the risk of produce spoiling,” said Le Roux.

The only way for farmers to mitigate the effects of load shedding is to install alternative power solutions like generators, as simple as that may sound, it is important to note that the price of fuel has to be factored in, which in turn, increases the farmers’ input costs.

Le Roux points out the potential threat load shedding poses to cold storage units, which are vital to keeping produce fresh, minimising spoilage, and safeguarding food supply.

He said: “We’ve been fortunate thus far in that cold stores have not been down long enough to incur any significant spoilage. This said, many farmers have experienced damage to cold room motors and fans in cold rooms, to the point that they had to be replaced at a significant cost. To guard against this type of damage, protection units then have to be installed to ensure that cold rooms only switch on once load shedding has ended and the electricity supply is stable.”

“Together, these all translate into significantly higher input costs for farmers. And when the agricultural sector’s input prices rise, or productivity falls, food prices surge, and it’s the end consumer who suffers.”

Le Roux referred to the Household Affordability Index produced by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group for July 2022, which indicated that the average household food basket soared by 14.8% or more than R600 year-on-year.

He concedes that the increases cannot squarely be blamed on load shedding and Eskom.

“This rise has largely been driven by fuel and fertiliser prices, but it’s important to recognise that power supply and load shedding issues have also played a role.”

Le Roux sees the continued instability of the power supply as a threat to the country’s food supply, which will ultimately have dire consequences for the country and the future of agriculture.

“Ultimately, the country’s electricity woes are, therefore, only adding to the uncertainty surrounding the stability of our future food supply and what looks to be persistent increases in food prices throughout this year and beyond. And the steady climb in food prices will leave many households close to or below the poverty line in dire need.”

“In truth, most farmers can produce crops regardless of the price of input costs. But if prices rise enough and a pocket of potatoes reaches, for example, R200, no one will buy it. This will then force more farmers to leave their farms and agriculture altogether.”

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