As Zimbabwe moves beyond self-sufficiency in almost every food crop, a new agricultural policy will be required aimed primarily at improving incomes of farm families and making sure that everything that is grown can find a viable market.
A major test comes in the present season that is just starting, an El Nino season where rainfll is expected to be normal to below normal.
If the harvest produces self sufficiency or surpluses, then an important test will have been passed.
A lot of effort has been made to ensure that even in a predicted difficult year, harvests will be adequate to good.
For a start a lot of attention has been paid to the crop mix, at least the crop mix using State inputs, and the physical inputs for small-holders and State-guarantees for loans means that most crops will be grown with a lot of direct or indirect State-input.
Even the totally independent are likely to be taking advice.
For a start, maize is effectively banned outside irrigated land in the two more arid natural regions, and even in natural region three farmers will need to think and figure out how close they are to the region four boundary.
Traditional grains are being pushed hard as the alternative, because they first need less water absolutely, and secondly during long dry spells remain alive and simply stop growing until more rain falls, and then resume.
In addition there is now a serious emphasis on conservation agriculture.
The whole smallholder sector, at least the overwhelming majority of farmers receiving Government inputs under Pfumvudza/Intwasa, are now well-trained and practising the specialist conservation farming that requires holes to be dug for each plant, so trapping a lot of rainfall, and heavy mulching, preserving soil moisture.
If these two measures work as expected, then Zimbabwean farmers will grow more grain than the population can eat, and achieving that in an El Nino year will cement the successes of the last three seasons.
There is also a chance that Zimbabwe will achieve self-sufficiency in oil seed, or at least come close to that.
Last season there was a major thrust to boost the sunflower crop several fold, strongly driven by one of the major processing companies, and after many, although not all, of the problems causing the mess in the cotton cropping were sorted out, Cotton production is rising fast and the cotton seed is largely slated for edible oil processing.
The very strong stress on soyabean, as if that was to remain the main oil seed crop, has sensibly been dropped.
Sunflower and cotton seed both have long production histories among smallholder farmers, can cope with more arid conditions than soyabean, and are considered simpler to grow, at least when it comes to the precise levels of fertiliser and chemicals required.
Even if complete self-sufficiency in vegetable oils is not achieved this season, the actual path to self-sufficiency is now mapped out and so the point when Zimbabwe goes into surplus is not too far off.
Even meat and dairy output are rising in volume, and again self-sufficiency is coming closer and again surpluses will need to be sold.
Already there is an outline of the need to find markets for surpluses of traditional grains, although like with the maize surpluses from the last season there is a breathing space while stocks are built up.
No one has yet set an ideal stockpile that can carryover from one harvest to the next, although most people will support a several months supply, and this may well be significantly higher if Zimbabwe wishes to insure against back-back severe droughts, not unheard of although not that common, yet.
At the moment Zimbabwe does not export food except form some citrus and specialist horticulture, and has not exported food for more than two decades. Everything edible we grow in the way of bulk food supplies we eat or store, so marketing has not been a problem. What the farmers grow in excess of their own household needs we can buy.
There has been a policy in recent years to pay what amounts to a modest premium over world prices, to ensure farmers receive top dollar.
This can be justified from Zimbabwe’s geographic position, at the end of long supply chains if we import food, and consequently when transport charges drop dramatically with local production, a good chunk of the saving can go to the farmers while still keeping the landed costs constant.
Food exports would largely work the other way, adding to the landed cost in the country where they are sold. This can work with citrus and blueberries, and with direct flights of vegetables to markets where almost none are grown, but for bulk grains and similar foods the competition must be taken into account.
Regional markets offer more hope, and it is here for example that there is hope that wheat can be sold, but many of the surpluses from Zimbabwean farmers are also in surplus in neighbouring countries.
Everyone in in the region is upgrading their maize and traditional grains, for example.
At the same time the main thrust of rural development and the main socio-economic policy, is to get all farming families to grow more to earn money.
Already grains are being seen as a cash crop, as well as an on-farm crop, in many areas and the guaranteed markets set up by the Government through the Grain Marketing Board are seen as a major driver of both agricultural expansion and growing farm incomes.
Marketing risks are zero.
Once we start seeing grains as cash crops, rather than farm food although that has to remain an important element, it will become easier to work out policies and allow farmers to continue raising their incomes by choosing the right mix of crops.
Across the heartland of natural region two we have around 50 000 farming families involved in tobacco, anything from 0,5ha upwards, and this is a crop with open market global pricing.
So we now have a lot of smallholder farmers making very good incomes, money going on housing and consumer goods and a growing number of motor cars parked outside communal and A1 homes.
But the area for tobacco is limited. Cotton and sunflower will fill a lot of the gap in other farming areas, as well as producing an extra stream of revenue for the natural region two elite, and we need to be pushing production here.
Livestock farmers need to migrate to seeing themselves as beef, goatmeat, dairy and frozen chicken farmers, rather than cattle farmers and the like, and start working out what their annual sales and returns should be.
A lot is talked about becoming an upper-middle income country, but when you examine this it means that families and households need to be upper middle income in cash and cash equivalent if they grow their own food, and that means we cannot limit farm production once local needs are met.
Farmers need to keep expanding but for export, and that will need a fair amount of research, advice and pricing information so the right varieties of the right crops are grown for identified markets.
Local market requirements are known and are being met, but next year or the year after the importance of export markets will start becoming significant. Tobacco and cotton are in place, but we will need to have other markets for other crops if all farmers are to be making a decent cash income.
As as farm incomes rise, they will rise faster.
While better standards of living will obviously take some of the new income stream, many farmers will be reinvesting a chunk of their new revenue, which is where a rising amount of mechanisation will be financed.
Once you start seeing every smallholder with a small tractor and pick-up you can start imagining the possibilities.
There have been suggestions of those two-wheel basic mechanisation tools, which might well suit many smallholders and will certainly be a more affordable option as farmers continue to expand production, at least in the early years of converting a smallholding into an intensively-cultivated small farm.
However we work it, continuing to talk about “self-sufficiency” when we are basically there is less and less useful.
We now need to talk about the more complex marketing required as output increases, and in turn convert marketing into more sophisticated mixes of products that farmers produce.
That may well require better links between farmers and industry, so the right raw materials for new products and new markets, are produced in the right quality and quantity.