Crop farmers paint gloomy harvest picture

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By Deon Schlechter

WINDHOEK – Panic-stricken farmers in both the commercial and communal water-fed crop farming areas across Namibia yesterday painted a bleak outlook for this year’s annual maize and mahangu production, as the rains stay away and planted material is scorched by the blazing sun.

Speaking to New Era while standing in his wilting maize field, chairperson of the Namibian Agronomic Producers Association, Gernot Eggert, described the unfolding situation in the so-called Maize Triangle area of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi, as critical. “Not all is lost, but some crop producers are now faced with a terrible situation, as their maize fields wilt away in front of their eyes and predictions of good rains towards the end of January hold little promise for them,” he says.

A similar scenario is unfolding in many parts of the communal crop farming areas in the north-central regions of the country where farmers, whose livelihoods depend on their annual maize and mahangu yields, are witnessing the devastation of their planted field every day as temperatures soar into the mid-30’s and the long-awaited rains stay away.

Strong winds have shifted a lot of top soil in deforested areas where the land is bare and over-grazed, making it vulnerable to wind erosion.

Julia Shipanga, a conservation agriculture (CA) farmer from the Okaku Constituency in the Oshana Region, says she is not sure about good rain prospects. “It might be good but, according, to us it is going to be bad because the rain is already very late,” she said.

“By this time last year, we were doing ripping/furrowing land preparations but this year we couldn’t, as the soils are very compacted and eroded. We have to wait for good rains in order to rip and furrow, as the plough pan in fields that were not ripped before is simply too hard. However, ripping/ furrowing is the only way forward as crops will not grow on hard plough pans.” she says.

Maria Amunyanyo, further south-west in Uukwiyu-Uushona Constituency from Oshana, who is practising conventional farming methods, says: “Soil quality was good 17 years ago and we used to get very good yields but now the soil is no more the same and yields are always very low.” She also fears late rains.

In the Omuntele and Onyaanya constituencies in the Oshikoto Region, both Johannes Keshongo and Simon Kambonde say farmers have to work hard and apply climate-smart methods to have yields even during a drought. Keshongo has practised conservation agriculture (CA) – ripping furrowing – for six years and the ripped lines go from north to south, thus minimising wind erosion as the wind is mainly east to west, or west to east. He has also improved the organic matter in the soil and the hard pan is cracked, thus giving rise to better root development. Kambonde applied CA for the first time last crop season and he agrees with Keshongo on the results.
Naem Mwanyekango in Okalongo constituency in the Omusati region has noticed signs for possible good rainfall and does not believe her area is heading into another drought. However, Mwanyekango is concerned about soil erosion and soil compaction. Her field is under conventional farming methods. “The soil in my field is of poor quality, and my yields are very low year after year. The top soil was washed away by heavy rains in the past, and then came the drought making the soil very hard. It is difficult to farm under such circumstances.”

Letta Sebron in the Elim constituency says that she has practised conservation agriculture for many years, and has noticed that her soil has improved vastly due to ripping furrowing in the same lines year after year, and due to the fact that she has added kraal manure and plant residue to build up soil fertility and soil water-holding capacity. “My advice to other farmers is to switch to conservation agriculture (ripping furrowing), to add organic matter in the planting lines and to introduce soil cover in their fields,” says Sebron.

Livestock farmers in the Kunene region were hardest hit by the drought of 2013 and are now desperate for rains. Farmers in Opuwo are saying that the signs from the various ways of predicting good rainfall point to a good rainy season but in late 2015.

Eggert says many producers in the Maize Triangle were optimistic about rain prospects in October last year, as predictions indicated normal to above normal rainfall for the 2014/15 season.

Most of them planted to full capacity while others have not planted at all because of the very low soil moisture in the absence of the promised rains.

Namibian maize producers brought in close to 70 000 tonnes of maize at the end of last season. About 55 000 tonnes of white maize headed for the market while the rest was to be stored in government silos, as provision in times of emergency.

National cereal production of 122 390 tonnes reflected an increase of 50 percent higher than last season’s harvest but yet 2 percent below average. Much of this improvement comes from the commercial areas where most of the production is under irrigation. Namibia was cited recently as the SADC country that has recorded the biggest increase in food insecurity with an eleven-fold increase.

Namibia uses 150 000 tonnes of the global maize consumption of 840 million tonnes, and despite the improved harvest, Namibia will as from August this year still rely on South African imports of about 130 000 tonnes to supply its population of some 2.2 million people. South Africa has recorded a record-breaking maize harvest of 14 million tonnes; the highest yield since the mid-eighties. Last year, Namibia had to import 170 000 tonnes of maize.

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