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El Niño uncertainty keeps SA farmers awake at night

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Uncertainty about the possible negative impacts of El Niño is a concern for farming communities in Southern Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica during the 2023 WhyAfrica Road Trip.

El Niño uncertainty keeps SA farmers awake at night

South Africa’s 2023/24 summer crop production season kicks off soon, and the uncertainty over the intensity of the El Niño weather event, and the higher temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall it could bring, remains a concern.

Wandile Sihlobo is Chief Economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz)

The latest message from the South African Weather Service through its Seasonal Climate Watch of August 28 was encouraging though. The weather service predicted that “the multi-model rainfall forecast indicates above-normal rainfall for most of the country during midspring (September to November) and late spring (October to December)”.

However, the weather service added that “early summer (November to January) … indicates below-normal rainfall over the central parts of the country and above-normal rainfall for the northeast”.

This means some regions of the country, mainly the central to western parts, may not experience the same start to the season as the eastern areas. Still, the broad sentiment is that showers are likely to support crop germination at the beginning of the 2023/24 production season. This is also an encouraging message for horticulture and livestock, as the rains will help production conditions in these subsectors.

The central message from the weather service report is that there are concerns about potential below-normal rainfall, mainly from the start of 2024, while there should be decent rain showers in most regions in 2023.

Pollination also a concern (El Niño uncertainty keeps SA farmers awake at night)

Aside from planting and germination, the other critical point of crop development is pollination, which requires moisture and typically occurs about February if farmers plant crops from mid-October in the eastern regions and mid-November in the country’s western areas.

Due to improved soil moisture from the last rainy seasons, mainly in east and central SA, the effect of the expected El Niño on agricultural conditions is likely to be limited initially. We remain concerned about the far western regions.

There is anecdotal evidence that soil moisture in these regions is not as conducive as in the other parts because of drier weather conditions towards the end of the 2022/23 production season.

The weather service report indicates stronger prospects of rainfall in the coming months in the northern and eastern regions, with less emphasis on the far western areas. The production conditions in these regions require constant monitoring.

The northern hemisphere countries experienced excessive heat during their summer season. We are thus concerned that this could be a reality for SA in the coming season too.

There is no clarity on this issue now, but it too will need constant monitoring. The weather service is unclear on it, saying that “minimum and maximum temperatures are expected to be mostly above-normal countrywide for the forecast period”.

The possibility of excessively high temperatures in an environment in which moisture is already constrained would not be ideal for crop production.

Outlook remains positive (El Niño uncertainty keeps SA farmers awake at night)

On balance the outlook for the coming agricultural season remains positive, with above-average harvests expected for key crops. The upcoming season is likely not to be as harsh as the 2015/16 production season, which is still fresh in farmers” memories.

Agricultural input prices are far better than last season, though not back to pre-Covid-19 levels. For example, SA farmers are likely to plant this year in an environment in which fertiliser prices are on average more than 50% lower than a year ago.

Given that fertiliser accounts for about a third of grain farmers’ input costs, such price declines will have a positive effect on their finances. Fungicide, insecticide, and herbicide prices are also down as much as a third compared with a year ago.

As commodity prices have also declined from the levels of a year ago, large profits are not necessarily to be made in crop farming. Still, the input cost environment is more forgiving overall, and there is encouraging enthusiasm in regions that are preparing for the start of the season in about three weeks.

Written for and first appeared on Business Day.

You can follow Wandile Sihlobo on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo).

El Niño uncertainty keeps SA farmers awake at night

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El Niño uncertainty keeps SA farmers awake at night

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