By Obert Chifamba
Agri — Insight
After getting off to a sluggish start dominated by a long dry spell for the better part of the first half (October to December 2020), the 2020/21 farming season has since metamorphosed into a term with normal to above normal rains that have easily surpassed the projections of many stakeholders in the agriculture industry.
Heavy rains have been pounding the country since the start of the year, which has seen water levels in most dams rising to points they last breached many years ago, while crops have also responded significantly to the change.
And while some crops are faring well under the new normal, some have not had it easy with water-logging and leaching being the order of the day.
This has forced farmers to look around for supplementary fertilizers to address the shortage of nitrate and phosphate nutrients that comes with leaching.
Many smallholder farmers were fortunate to have registered for the Government’s climate-proofed Pfumvudza/Intwasa concept that has enabled them to access top-dressing fertilizers. But there is this category of farmers that planted early and whose crops managed to miraculously survive the blistering heat of the first half of the season and have matured on which today’s instalment will focus on much.
These farmers have since started harvesting their crops just like most of their counterparts who grew tobacco and whose crop has also ripened and is currently being harvested and cured in readiness for the market.
And with no end in sight to the current rains, these farmers need to be at their best to harvest and safely store their crops without incurring heavy losses before and during harvesting, while chances are also very high for them to suffer huge storage losses if they do not exercise extreme care when they store their produce either before marketing or future domestic uses.
Maize farmers face the difficult task of deciding whether to leave the matured crop in the field where rainwater can drain off the plant on its own or harvest and store it in a dry place at home.
At the moment, both options may be tempting, but they have their advantages and disadvantages, which requires the farmer to make an astute decision cognisant of what she can or cannot do to save the crop.
If the farmer chooses to delay harvesting, then they have to contend with the high chances of the crop either falling to the ground with the cobs, facing the inevitable reality of getting attacked by pests like termites or rotting due to the wet weather in which cases losses will start in the field.
If they opt to harvest it, then they have to make sure there are proper storage facilities that will allow the produce to stay safely and dry to the required moisture content without going bad.
Farmers may need to make temporary storage facilities where they will keep grain as it waits to dry to the expected levels.
They can approach the Department of Mechanisation in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement where they can buy metal silos that are designed in such a way that stored produce can dry properly and remain safe without going to waste.
Where the metal silos option is impossible, farmers can still use their traditional storage structures (dara in Shona), but will need to add a roof so that rains have no access to the stored produce, while the structure should be designed in such a way that it permits free movement of air to allow grain to dry to the required levels.
Resources permitting, farmers, especially those in the commercial category can team up and hire dryers to aid the drying of their produce to the expected moisture levels that will allow them either to sell it profitably or store it safely for later use.
The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) should also be readying its structures to hold the bumper harvest the country is expecting, thanks to the above normal rains currently falling in most parts of the country.
It is good to note that GMB has since acquired dryers to ensure grain is dried and stored at the right moisture content.
It will be disappointing if we were to witness the setback of grain rotting under storage in GMB silos like what happened some years ago at Lions Den depot when a sizeable tonnage of grain rotted in the silos, yet the parastatal is mandated with maintaining the strategic grain reserves of the country.
This alone should be enough motivation for the parastatal to be very proactive and even go the extra mile to re-educate farmers on the need to bring it grain that has reached the recommended moisture content every year.
Meanwhile, the maize farmer is not alone in this predicament.
Groundnut and tobacco farmers are also facing a similar predicament and need to act swiftly to save their crops from the wet weather if they are to get meaningful yields.
Groundnuts can easily start sprouting or rotting if they are not harvested in time given that the rains will keep the soil moist, which promotes germination or decaying.
The farmers will need to remove the pods quickly and store the produce in spacious storage structures that allow good air circulation, while the tobacco farmers must harvest all ripe leaves as soon as they show signs of maturity, as leaving them in the field will compromise the quality.
Ripe tobacco leaves do not need to remain exposed to more rains while the farmers are also expected to realise that this year’s crop will require different quantities of fuel for curing as the leaf is softer than last season’s.
Last season’s leaves were produced under semi-dry conditions, especially for the dryland crop and, therefore, needed different levels of heat during curing compared to this year’s that received adequate rains.
Farmers need to work closely with their extension officers for advice on the possible quantities of wood or coal to use for curing this year’s leaf so that they do not ruin the quality.