Karoo farmer turns to labourer as 5-year drought slashes his income

Farmers struggle as drought persists in the Karoo. (Supplied)
Farmers struggle as drought persists in the Karoo. (Supplied)

A once prosperous Karoo farmer has had to hire himself out to work on bigger farms after the crippling drought caused his annual turnover to drop from around R1.5m to R300 000 in three years.

Gottven Scheun, who has farmed sheep and Angora goats outside Beaufort West for 32 years, said the drought in his area was entering its sixth year.

"It's the worst in living memory."

To save money he has cancelled his life insurance policy, his medical aid and short-term insurance.

READ: A fight for life and death: Ostrich farmers battle as drought cripples Karoo

Eskom cut off his electricity after he was unable to pay the R10 000 to R12 000 monthly bill.

With the veld dead and the cost of feed high, Scheun has had to cut the size of his flock by 75% over the last few years.

'It's not easy'

He has not employed workers for two years as he could no longer pay them.

Now he is hiring himself out to work on farms less badly hit by the drought, where boreholes still produce water.

"We help each other out. Because my flock is so reduced there is not a full week's work for me, so I physically go to work for some guys on bigger farms. That is a bit of income so I can put bread and butter on the table. I hire myself out. It is not easy," Scheun said.

Most farmers were struggling on, but some had gone under.

"It's so critical, some people have closed the gate and gone. Emerging farmers too, they said they can't anymore and left."

Beaufort West estate agent Ian Taylor said "quite a few" local farmers wanted to sell, but there were no buyers for farms.

"The market is dead."

Karoo drought, low rainfall

               Facebook post indicating the extent of the drought in the Karoo. (Supplied)

Dean Gous of Agri Central Karoo said some drought-stricken farmers had so little cash flow that when fodder was donated from farmers upcountry, they could not afford the diesel to drive to Beaufort West to collect it.

"They can't afford a telephone anymore, and now some are taking from their pension money. We've had bad droughts before, but never as long as this."

Gous said Karoo farmers had two options: to sell the bulk of their flock to regions not as badly hit by drought or to send them to the abattoirs for slaughter.

Falling sheep prices

But the price abattoirs pay for sheep has dropped to such an extent that selling them is not economical.

"It went down to R70 a kilogram, and now it's gone down to R56 a kilogram – and from that they still subtract money for slaughter fees. 

"But the consumer is not getting that cut in the meat price. In Cape Town the consumer pays about R180 a kilogram. Somebody is making a killing, and it's not the farmers."

This week lamb loin chops in a Cape Town Pick n Pay cost R184.99 a kilogram.

Gous said the average rainfall for the region was 266mm from September to March. From September last year to date, the central Karoo had got only 16mm.

Although it got 150mm last summer, this had fallen in very small amounts throughout the season.

"It was 2mm here, 3mm there. You need a good 60mm rain in one go to get the grass and veld to grow, and then small follow-ups. That didn't happen."

Eskom bills

Another heavy cost to farmers is electricity as Eskom charges them a "fixed cost" in addition to the cost of the electricity they use. They say the fixed cost makes up 52% of their Eskom bills.

Most farmers need electricity to drive the deep borehole pumps.

Farmer Johnny Theunissen said the fixed cost was to pay for the cost of the electricity lines and connection to Eskom until this was paid off.

"But that should have been paid off 20 or 25 years ago, and we are still paying. Guys can't pay their Eskom bills and so they're cut off and can't run their borehole pumps. We've asked Eskom and we've asked organised agriculture to cut this fixed cost, but they keep shifting the goal posts," Theunissen said.

However, Eskom said it was a misconception that farmers had paid off the fixed costs over the years.

It said only a small portion of the capital cost of rural lines was covered by the upfront connection charges and the rest had to come from tariffs and cross-subsidies. The charges also did not cover the cost of operating and maintenance.

"If we don't recover it from the customer, someone else has to pay for it. Already large industry customers contribute a very large amount to these rural subsidies," Eskom said.

Dried up boreholes

In Beaufort West 18 of the town's 40 supply boreholes have dried up as the water table drops.

Hein Rust, disaster manager of the Central Karoo District Municipality, said the sewage reclamation plant was delivering about a million litres of water a day that bolstered the borehole supply.

It had a capacity to deliver 2.4 million litres a day, but because people had cut water consumption, the amount of sewage water feeding into the plant had dropped.

"Overall the situation is bad, but we do still have water in Beaufort West."

Households have their water cut off for three hours a day, with one section of the town cut in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

Water supply is shut down at night between 19:00 and 06:00.

These measures are to allow the borehole water to accumulate in the reservoirs to a level where there is enough pressure to distribute it to the town.

"We've got 22 boreholes still delivering because they draw from different aquifers."

Day Zero

Water is not cut off in hospitals, old age homes and businesses.

Asked if Beaufort West would have a Day Zero, when all boreholes ran dry, Rust said it was not easy to say.

"In Cape Town it was easy to tell because the water in the supply dams could be measured. With boreholes you can't tell when Day Zero will be."

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