Obert Chifamba Senior Reporter
Zimbabwe’s hunger season usually runs from January to March in most cases. These are usually the grimmest months during which most households would have exhausted harvests from the previous season and will be struggling to make ends meet until the next harvest.Incidentally, most people are involved in agriculture, which means their income is also dependent on a good harvest and usually comes as a lump sum that normally gets quickly exhausted, as there will be a long list of “things-to-do” when they get the money. This means that they will not be capacitated to buy the grain to supplement or replenish their dwindling supplies.
This is also the point at which the majority of the people leave their fate in the hands of the Government. Of course Government in most cases does not wait for this eventuality but mobilises grain in advance and starts distribution once the distress signal comes through.
Today’s offering will look at the role farmers are playing in this almost-yearly spectacle of food insecurity and deliberately pay a blind eye to the vagaries of the weather that are usually blamed for food insecurity even when it could have been mitigated through the actions of the farmers.
In the not-too-distant past, farmers used to practise mixed farming, which involved almost all types of grains and all forms of livestock. And all these fed into their food security basket though at different times.
They would grow maize, rapoko, cow peas, sorghum and even finger millets for their use especially during traditional ceremonies and these would not just be confined to the ceremonies but for common domestic use as well.
The farmers would produce groundnuts, roundnuts, water melons and bush melons. All of these fed into the food security basket.
Farmers also grew sweet potatoes that would be used mostly for breakfast while the bush melons would also be cooked into a very tasty porridge and so were pumpkins.
One important observation is that they managed to balance the time they committed to all the crops and they scored good harvests in most of them.
Most of these crops have since been discarded, as the majority of farmers are now interested in producing crops that can be sold commercially.
The coming of tobacco, for instance, saw many households committing the bulk of their land and time to the crop leaving the smaller portions to food crops and the food crop they opted for was maize in most cases.
The sad reality with their crop of choice is that it is very susceptible to drought and once it fails then that spells hunger for the farmers, who in most cases will not be able to raise enough money to buy supplementary grain. As a rule of thumb, farmers ought to commit enough resources to food crops and not concentrate on commercial crops only.
In the past farmers from cotton producing areas such as Sanyati, Gokwe and Muzarabani would produce the white gold for the market but still grow food crops and never had food deficits.
This may be a case of misplaced priorities on the part of the farmers. The majority of them seem to forget that they need to be commercial farmers with full bellies so they concentrate on commercial crops and forget about their food requirements in the process.
The unfortunate part is that the bulk of them depend on rain-fed agriculture and if there is a bad season then even the commercial crops that they will be banking on will fail and in the end they will not be able to generate incomes with which to buy grain.
Some of the commercial crops they produce, for instance, tobacco do not tolerate moisture stress so once a season is poor the quality also drops, which ultimately affects the earnings. Farmers need to create their own safety nets through diversification of crops taking advantage of the fact that different crops react differently to moisture stress, which means that some may survive in the event of a drought when others wilt and die.
Tobacco is a labour intensive crop that requires the farmer to be in attendance from the moment she establishes a seedbed to the point of packaging for the market.
In most cases farmers do not have the capacity to hire casual labour so that they can attend to both tobacco and other crops so in the end they commit everything to tobacco with the hope that they can reap big and later buy grain for food.
The wise farmer manages to juggle his time and give attention to all crops that he has planted and in most cases do intensive cropping on small hectarages where he can adequately attend to all crops and apply inputs correctly without trying to spread them and fill vast expanses of land yet reap very little or even nothing in the end.