December is always a great month for me to get insight into South Africa’s agricultural conditions in a much more relaxing way when compared to my typical farm visits.
Each year I drive from Gauteng to the Eastern Cape, making frequent stops along the way to observe farming land and activities on various fields. This year I repeated a similar exercise, but the drive was not as enjoyable as it had been in the years before 2015.
Back then, frequent droughts were not the norm in South Africa, and a December drive across the country this time of the year would be an opportunity to gaze through lush maize and soybeans fields, and also livestock and grazing veld.
Driving from Pretoria out through Gauteng offers a false sense of notable recovery in vegetation and farms due to recent rainfall.
It is nicely green, although some farmers are still planting in areas bordering the Free State. But as soon as one drives through the Free State into the southern regions of the province that border the Eastern Cape, a notable change in picture can be seen.
The southern Free State to northern and central regions of the Eastern Cape are still very dry, and livestock grazing along the way and in nearby farms where I managed to stop is not looking well.
This goes to show that the rains of the past few weeks were mainly concentrated into a few areas around Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the North West.
The rains the other regions of the country received in the past few weeks made minimal improvement in soil moisture and improving vegetation. Discussion with farmers in far areas, such Matatiele, paints a similar picture of relative dryness and a slow recovery in grazing veld.
Maize farmers in these regions, and also other parts of South Africa, are also still planting, despite the optimal planting window having closed on 15 December in the western regions of the country and 15 November in the eastern region. What’s more, discussions with farmers in parts of Limpopo paint a similar picture of dryness and high temperatures, which is not ideal for farming.
Worryingly, the South African Weather Service noted in its 20 December 2019 Seasonal Climate Watch that "[t]he rainfall forecast for late-summer (Jan-Feb-Mar) and early-autumn (Feb-Mar-Apr) indicates enhanced probabilities of below-normal rainfall over most of the country.
"With regards to temperatures, mostly higher than normal temperatures are expected this summer over most of South Africa with the exception of the far south-western parts that indicate lower than normal minimum temperature throughout late-summer and autumn."
This is bad news for farmers in areas that are already in bad shape as southern Free State, Eastern Cape and parts of Limpopo, amongst other regions.
The key question on people’s minds might be - what does this mean for agricultural output in 2020? In as far as summer crop production are concerned, we will have a clearer picture of the area planted and crop conditions at the end of January 2020 when the official crop surveys are done. But as far as one can tell from activity on the ground and the aforementioned weather forecasts, South Africa is not yet out of the woods.
This uncertain outlook follows a 2018/19 production season where the major summer crops performed poorly — maize, soya beans and sunflower seed production are all down year on year, by 10%, 24% and 21%, to 11.3-million tons, 1.2-million tons and 680,940 tons respectively.
In terms of livestock, if dryness persists, it will be an added challenge to an already tough trading environment following an outbreak of a foot-and-mouth disease (I have discussed this point here).
Overall, the drive from Gauteng to the Eastern Cape this year was not a pleasant one, but it helped provide an update of the realities of agricultural conditions at farm level. There is some level of uncertainty about agricultural outlook, even though other parts of the country are seeing a positive change.
Wandile Sihlobo is a South African agricultural economist.