Picture: 123RF/KOSTIC DUSAN
Picture: 123RF/KOSTIC DUSAN

A drive from Pretoria to the Eastern Cape in December always offers an opportunity to assess the country’s agricultural conditions after the first few months of the summer season. During drought, this could be a depressing drive, as was the case in December 2015, when the long drive from Pretoria to the former Transkei felt like a trip across The Karoo.

Unlike December 2015, this season’s drive was as refreshing as no other in recent memory. The vegetation is green and lush from Pretoria all the way to Port St Johns in the Wild Coast. After all, 2016/2017 and 2019/2020, which turned out to be bumper seasons for SA’s agricultural sector, received late rains. I still remember my December 2019 drive, where the vegetation across central SA was much drier than in 2020. But the rains from the end of December 2019 into January 2020 helped improve soil moisture, and farmers completed summer crop planting in the usual area of about four million hectares across the country.

This year the heavy rains since the start of October improved the moisture much faster. Notably, the 2021/2022 production season follows another wet season, which means that soil moisture across the country was at relatively better levels to permit planting. But the La Niña rains this year fell much earlier than usual, more frequently and heavily. As a result, from a distance the vegetation looks green across most of the country.

But this doesn't mean all is well in our agricultural sector. The heavy rains have been both a blessing and a curse. From the start of October, the regions that planted early, such as Mpumalanga, eastern areas of the Free State and parts of KwaZulu-Natal, have thus far benefited from early rains, and the crop is in good condition.

But the regions whose optimal planting dates are typically from November of each year have struggled with excessive moisture, which somewhat delayed planting and damaged early crops in some areas. Some of this is visible even in fields between Gauteng and the Free State, where the height of the crop shows both early and late planting. Still, since most farmers wouldn’t need to fertilize when they replant, but rather add seed, the current challenge is far better than drought.

In conversations I had with some farmers, they also noted that the wet conditions delayed the fertilizer spraying process in some crops, which could negatively affect yields. Still, this is not a significant issue at the moment as there are hopes that if the coming weeks provide a pause, then the spraying process can begin.

I didn't get to see the western regions of the country, primarily the North West; it’s the region I hope to visit in January. But so far, the feedback I have received from farmers in that part of the country is that the extremely wet conditions are providing challenges for younger crops.

For the livestock industry, the improvement in pasture when feed prices are at higher levels is a welcome development. The lush green that one sees across the country is, in the main, pasture for livestock grazing. Even the typically dry areas such as small towns and farming regions bordering the Free State and the Eastern Cape are unusually green and welcoming this year.

The only challenge livestock farmers can expect with wet conditions is that parasites and parasitic diseases may flourish. It might be the case that this season will have a higher than normal demand for parasite remedies and vaccines against diseases like horse sickness, Rift Valley fever, lumpy skin disease, tick-borne gall sickness, and heartwater.

Unfortunately, industry role-players worry that some of these remedies and vaccines might not be available in the country due to issues at Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), a government institution responsible for manufacturing some of these vaccines for livestock. This issue requires the urgent intervention of agriculture minister Thoko Didiza. The livestock role players also need to monitor these diseases and communicate efficiently with authorities.

In summary, the benefit of the La Niña-induced heavy rains may have made the country greener but the agricultural impact of these rains remains mixed.

Communal farmers also suffer the same challenge as some that I have spoken about within the Eastern Cape have not been able to tend their crops and remove weeds in weeks, and all this is threatening yields.

Overall, I still believe that we are in for another good agricultural season, especially if January presents some warmer temperatures than those of the past few months.

• Sihlobo (@WandileSihlobo), the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA and author of ‘Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity, and Agriculture’, is at Stellenbosch University’s department of agricultural economics.

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