Western Cape farmers look with hope to the skies as heavy rainfall predicted

Some citrus and wheat farmers in the drought-stricken Western Cape say they are optimistic that winter will bring the solid rainfall they need.

This is despite lower rainfall in the last few years.

"The most optimistic thing you can get is the farmer," explains Adries Theron, 57, a wheat farmer in the Swartland region.

"We are always optimistic about the future."

As a sixth-generation farmer, who has been in the business for 35 years, he has seen the highs and lows of politics, the economy and the weather.

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When 9.5mm of rain poured down on his Moorreesburg farm recently, he and his son Frikkie jumped up and started doing some light planting, hoping for the best.

The last three years have been very challenging.

"What is interesting is, in 2015, we had a bad year. Then we got to 2016 and we had terrible rainfall. When we had 2017, also terrible," he says with a sigh.

'We all believe it is going to rain'

What makes him optimistic about this season is that the climate is cooler and "more normal", with a bit of rain, a cold front and fog coming through already.

"The new enemy on the block is the climate, and this is something I am not used to. It’s a different ball game… we are so hoping for the best this year."

READ: Drought declared a national disaster

André Kirsten has been a grain farmer in Darling and Philadelphia for around 20 years.

He says many farmers are planting some grains "flat out" this week, no matter how much rain falls.

"Farmers are the only guys who believe in themselves. We all believe it is going to rain, that it is going to be a good year," he says.

Farmers deal with many challenges, including the struggle to secure funds. 

"When it starts raining, the farmer's mind changes. He doesn't believe he doesn't have money in the bank. He just starts planting."

Kirsten says they have had quite good harvests in the past, with not that much rain.

"You don’t need a lot of rain at once, you just need regular rain. We need rain throughout the winter, but September is the most vital."

'Optimism backed by SA Weather Service'

According to Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) economist Wandile Sihlobo, winter grain planting has started, despite extreme dryness in the fields, as farmers hope for better rainfall in the coming weeks.

"The optimism is backed by the South African Weather Service's forecasts of above normal rainfall in the province between this month and June 2018."

Sihlobo says it is important to keep an eye on the Crop Estimates Committee's intentions-to-plant winter data, which is expected to be released on Wednesday afternoon.

With citrus, cold temperatures are needed in winter for the fruit to go from green to a deep orange colour, explains 58-year-old Citrusdal farmer Piet Smit, a fourth-generation farmer at Boontjiesrivier En Boschkloof Boerdery.

Winter rain also means farmers don't have to irrigate.

Smit says they normally start harvesting the first varieties by the end of March and continue harvesting different varieties until the middle of October.

The last two seasons have been very dry, with below average rainfall.

"The general concern is that production went down. I know farmers that did not have enough water for the past season," says Smit.

'I do believe we have the best farmers in the world'

He remains confident that this season will bring good winter rains that will fill the dams.

"Farming is not easy. It’s a talent and you have to compete with the rest of the world. I do believe we have the best farmers in the world."

According to the South African Fresh Produce Exporters’ Forum, fresh fruit accounts for around half of the country’s agricultural exports.

"Globally, South Africa is the second largest exporter of citrus fruit," its 2018 Export Directory states.

Western Cape agriculture is expected to take a knock with the drought, according to MPL Beverley Schäfer's response after the tabling of the 2018 provincial budget for the sector.

It was estimated that about 57 000 agriculture jobs will be lost in the province as a result of the drought, Fin24 reported.

She said economists had also indicated that farm debt had increased to about R160bn due to the 2015/16 drought.

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