Maize harvest targets ambitious, but unrealistic

03 Nov, 2023 - 00:11 0 Views
Maize harvest targets ambitious, but unrealistic Maize

eBusiness Weekly

Business Writer

Zimbabwe has set an ambitious and probably unrealistic maize harvest target for the 2023/24 agricultural season given forecasts of a normal to below-normal rainfall season.

Meteorological experts forecast the country to experience El Niño-induced normal to below-normal rains this year in most parts of the country.

El Niño occurrences frequently cause lower rainfall and protracted dry spells in southern Africa, Zimbabwe included.

But in its ambitious plan, the southern African country is targeting to harvest 2, 8 million tonnes of maize, up from the estimated harvest of 2,3 million tonnes in the 2022/23 normal rainfall season.

This is the closest to the previous record maize haul of 2,95 million tonnes realised in 1984.

Speaking at a post-Cabinet briefing in Harare this week, Information Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister, Dr Jenfan Muswere, said the country is targeting to produce 2 800 000 tonnes of maize.

Muswere said 70 316 hectares had been tentatively committed for maize production under irrigation, with a potential yield of up to 500 000 tonnes.

This means the balance of 2 300 000 will be rainfed and under threat from El Nino though measures to mitigate poor harvest have been put in place with about 40,8 percent being early to ultra-early maturity varieties.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), up to 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s population subsists on rainfed agriculture.

As a result, insufficient rainfall and prolonged dry spells negatively affect maize yields, resulting in lower production and compromised food security.

However ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development Permanent Secretary, Professor Obert Jiri, said the target was “very realistic”.

“We have been on a crusade outlining what we are doing differently in light of El Niño,” said Prof Jiri.
Some of the activities being run by his ministry include encouraging the growth of drought-tolerant varieties, use of irrigation systems as well as adopting water-efficient practices.

Moreover, the Ministry of Agriculture developed a Drought Risk Management Strategy and Action Plan (2017–2025), which presents a framework for implementing mitigation measures to improve drought readiness.

Plot preparation under the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme was being accelerated, with a target to complete three plots per farmer by the extended deadline of November 15 and the country expected to surpass previous records.

Over 3,8 million plots had already been prepared, which was higher than previous seasons and historiacally has a higher average yield per hectare than the overall national yield.

However, El Nino brings with it some other challenges.

In a September 2023 interview with Inter Press Service, Washington Zhakata, a director of the Environment Ministry’s Climate Change Management Department said “El Niño conditions create conducive conditions for the outbreak of crop diseases and pests”.

“When the crops are weakened, they become more susceptible to infestations and diseases, further affecting agricultural yields,” Zhakata reportedly

Commenting on the ambitious target, farmer and agriculture expert Munyaradzi Mutsvairo, said with the current irrigation dams in place and expected inflows “one can stretch the numbers to that but early planting and irrigation are key success factors”.

He, however, said it will be a tall order to achieve 2,3 million tonnes from rainfed agricultural activities.

“Obviously the efforts on pfumvudza are critical and relevant to the assumed numbers. Potholing, adding manure and mulching is a tried and tested scientific moisture conservation method that significantly increases yield.

“The question is of the 3,5 million households doing the pfumvudza, what hectarage does that translate to and what is the yield per plot converting to the total production from pfumvudza only. It is important to segregate production into irrigated crop hectares, pfumvudza hectares and typical dryland hectares.

This categorization will test the accuracy of the numbers.”

However, another agriculture expert Dr Reneth Mano, said climate-smart agriculture production plans and targets for El Nino years of below-normal rainfall years should never be the same as crop production plans and targets for La Nino years of normal to below normal rainfall.

Mano said given that 2023/24 is El Nino year of below-normal rains, climate-smart common sense planning would reduce target maize area to 1 million hectares.

“Maize is the cereal crop most vulnerable to drought under rainfed farming.”

Mano said Government support with free maize inputs for vulnerable farmers “should be reduced and restricted to the 20 or so districts that tend to consistently perform better than the rest in drought years and good rainfall years”.

He, however, said traditional grains, pearl millet and finger millet, white sorghum and red sorghum, are the most drought-tolerant cereal food crops.

“Traditionally grown without any fertiliser using over recycled seeds, these small grains are can achieve much higher yields with modest use of fertilisers and fresh pack of improved seeds,” said Mano.

The country is targeting to produce 350 000 tonnes of sorghum and 92 658 tonnes of pearl millet.

“Target for El Nino 2022/23 drought year should ideally double area under sorghum and finger millets,” said Dr Mano.

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) president, Dr Shadreck Makombe, said achieving the target will depend on whether there is an El Nino or not.

He said if the country receives normal to above normal in the main, then the target will be achieved.
Makombe said if the season is similar to the 2022/23 then it will be a better season and the country can do far much better “because we have learnt our lesson.”

“But if not it (if there are below normal rainfall) then its different. We cannot meet our targets when the rainfall are going to be below normal it means things are not going to be well.”

“If El Nino is going to be there, then definitely we will not make it, its a bad year,” said Makombe.

He, however, said if circumstances change “then it might be something else”.

El Niño last hit Zimbabwe in 2016 and left millions needing food assistance and it remains to be seen whether enough has been done to grow the country’s harvest to the loft numbers targeted by the Ministry of Agriculture.

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