Staggering crops helps S.African farmers combat drought

by Fidelis Zvomuya | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 July 2010 12:28 GMT

By Fidelis Zvomuya

GA-SELALA, Limpopo, South Africa (AlertNet) - Julius Nhematandane has seen many things in his 60 years, but he can't remember a drought as terrible as the one that ruined Limpopo's most recent harvest.

Born into a farming family, Nhematandane's life has always been tied to the soil. At the age of 54, however, he says he has never seen "such severe drought" in the northern province of South Africa.

Over the past decade, Limpopo has had 60 percent less rainfall than normal, according to the department of agriculture.

"To be a farmer is to live with risk. Each agricultural season brings with it opportunities as well as risks," says village leader Nhematandane. "In a good year, I can harvest up to 15 bags of maize on my one acre plot, and make good money on my investment."

But to cope with the periodic droughts his region is experiencing, he uses techniques that help ensure more stable harvests and income. He grows beans alongside maize in case the rains, and his maize crop, fail.

And he staggers the dates he plants crops in his fields. "As you can see my crop fared slightly better than some of my neighbours'," he says. "The field I planted early last year survived; the others did not."

Nhematandane has also tested a conservation farming technique called 'potholing', which involves placing seeds, fertiliser, water and lime in specially dug holes, boosting yields thanks to the concentration of inputs in an enclosed space. This has allowed him to at least grow some corn in today's dry conditions.

"Our climatic weather conditions have changed," he explains, adding that uncertainty is the biggest constraint for local farmers. "Frosts or hailstorms can wipe out crops at any time of the growing season. A year of normal rainfall (around 600mm) can be followed by a year when rain falls in flood proportions, or by drought."

"So as farmers we also must adapt and make sure that we are able to feed the nation."

FARMERS TAKE THE INITIATIVE

South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) predicts southern Africa will be severely affected by climate change over the next 70 years, with temperatures increasing by up to six degrees Celsius and rainfall dropping by as much as 40 percent in some areas.

"Agriculture and biodiversity will experience a particularly negative impact," says CSIR researcher Constansia Musvoto.

In a region where 70 percent of the population are smallholder farmers, livelihoods are under threat from more frequent and longer droughts, higher risk of crop failure, and shrinking pasture and cropland due to water shortages.

Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba, Limpopo's minister for agriculture, says that while drought can't be prevented, its impact can be mitigated.

"We support farmer-based initiatives such as the one taken by Mr Nhematandane. We are trying to make sure that we link him with the Agricultural Research Council so that this can be linked with scientific research," she explains.

Letsatsi-Duba says thousands of people are short of drinking water, and crops worth 10 million rand have failed. The department spent 24 million rand ($3.2 million) in the 2009-2010 financial year to implement drought relief in its five provincial districts.

The money was used for de-silting 10 earth dams for livestock water; equipping 130 boreholes with windmills, pumps and water-storage tanks; building and repairing 80 drinking troughs; and providing food packages.

But government intervention isn't the only solution.

Nhematandane, a widower living with his four children, is just one of 1,000 farmers in his village who are struggling with uncertain weather conditions.

Ga-Selala is a typical tribal village, home to around 2,000 families suffering from poverty and malnutrition. Most people earn a living by working as labourers in fields belonging to farmers in neighbouring villages and further afield.

But when the planting and harvesting seasons are over, these jobs become scarce, especially from May through September. Then villagers have to migrate or survive on roots, tubers and fruits they gather from the forest.

SPREADING OUT HARVESTS

Most farmers in Limpopo say they are experiencing the worst drought in more than 50 years, magnifying the province's chances of suffering another economic crisis due to lost revenue.

Cows are dying by the thousands in the baking sun, and crops are being lost before their seeds even break through the soil.

"Our planting season usually commences when the summer rains are received, usually around the end of September or beginning of October. But now we don't have a clue," Nhematandane says.

Yet in the midst of this increasingly desperate situation, he continues to harvest and sell some produce to his neighbours.

He attributes this to his efforts to spread out harvests by planting crops at different times - also known as succession planting - and his use of varieties with a range of maturing dates.

"I have seen that maize is one of those crops that is only 'good' for a few days. If you want longer periods of production, consider staggering the planting. In other words, plant a small block, wait a period of time, and then plant the next block," he says.

He explains that rather than following a set calendar schedule - for example, planting every week - it is best to watch the development of crops and plant a new block when the previous one is half to an inch tall.

Minister Letsatsi-Duba says staggered planting also helps regulates the uptake of nutrients.

"In this way, the system will never have too much or too little nitrogen for the plants to consume. Staggering cropping techniques are as applicable at the small scale as they are at a commercial level."

Nhematandane's experience shows how they can work in practice. "This is the only way to survive as a farmer," he says.

Fidelis Zvomuya, based in Pretoria, South Africa, is a writer specialising in environmental reporting.

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