Wandile Sihlobo: A slightly brighter outlook for SA's farmers

Recent rains have been good news for South Africa's agricultural sector, with soil moisture improving notably in most summer crop growing areas of the country.

It is particularly heartening to see improvements in the central regions of the Eastern Cape and Southern Free State, which were strained at the end of 2019.

Aside from the Western Cape, which is a winter rainfall area, only southwestern regions of the Eastern Cape, fringes of the Free State, North West and the northern regions of KwaZulu-Natal are still experiencing soil moisture stress (see Figure 1 below). This means that agricultural activity in these specific areas is still taking a knock.

But what some people will find comforting is that the major summer grains and oilseeds growing areas of South Africa are in better shape, as this is clear, not only from the map below, but also observations from driving across the country’s maize-belt. The crop is looking good in areas that have planted.

As of January 10, 2019, about 90% of the estimated 2.5 million hectares of maize in 2019/20 production season had already been planted. A large part of this, however, was planted way beyond optimal planting dates, which means that the crop will mature much later than in normal seasons.

This invokes concerns that any frost occurrence later in the season could negatively affect crop yields.

Another important point is that, while soil moisture is good for now, more rain will still be needed during the season for crop development. To this end, there is some level of uncertainty as the South African weather authorities have recently noted a possibility of below-normal rainfall in the country between January and March 2020.

Therefore, a lot can still happen in the coming weeks, and it might be too early to pencil in a number of what South Africa’s summer grains and oilseeds harvest could be.

wandile map

Cautious optimism

A couple of market players have penciled maize production estimates at a range of 12.0 and 14.0 million tonnes, which is plausible if we get good rains. Also, this would be awesome considering that the 2018/19 season crop was 11.2 million tonnes.

Be that as it may, it would help to first consider area plantings data which is due at the end of this month, and also the South African Weather Service’s weather outlook update also due around the same time, before putting out a firm position about the possible crop harvest for South Africa in 2019/20.

Suffice to say, I feel more at ease about the outlook for South African agriculture now, compared to a few weeks ago.

*Wandile Sihlobo, an agricultural economist by training, is chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz).