Elita Chikwati Agriculture Reporter
Zimbabwe is expected to lose significantly this year in earnings as farmers are unlikely to meet the target of 222 million kilogrammes of tobacco owing to late rains and a mid-season dry spell.
Tobacco has for many years been the country’s top money earner until recently when production tumbled to 60 million kg before rebounding in the last couple of years.
Late rains affected planting while the mid-season dry spell impacted heavily on yields.
Last year, farmers pocketed over $685 million out of 216 million kilogrammes that went under the hammer and according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, total banking sector deposits increased by 2,25 percent to $4,325 billion in May 2014 from $4,23 billion the previous month, driven mainly by tobacco sales.
But farmers’ woes this season have been worsened by merchants who have indicated that they are more interested in buying the top leaves only as they may get cheaper primings from elsewhere. Most tobacco growers are under pressure to sell their crop and recover their costs, but latest developments are likely to see farmers pocketing far less.
Contracted growers would want to sell their crop to pay back their loans and remain with profits. This season, the bulk of the tobacco was affected by the poor rainfall distribution, which at first caused flooding that led to serious leaching and was followed by the mid-season dry spell that reduced yields of the bulk of the late planted crop.
Beatrice farmer, Mrs Portia Gurira of Gilston Farm, said she planted her crop late due to the late rains. “This season we have a late crop. We started reaping yesterday but last year, during the same period, we were already curing the crop,” she said.
“We planted late and the mid-season dry spell affected the crop and this reduced yields significantly. I was not aware that this season merchants are not interested in buying lower leaves. I usually use the proceeds from the sale of primings to pay the workers.”
Another farmer, Mr Champion Zaba, said he had a late crop and also reduced his hectarage after getting low prices last season.
For the past four years, the highest price of tobacco remained at $4,99 per kg at the auction floors, while at the contract floors the price could go up to $5,95 per kg.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Mr Wonder Chabikwa said although it was too early to predict the tobacco yield, the dry spell had reduced yields, especially for the dry land crop.
“Dry land tobacco that was transplanted mid-December is in a terrible state and not doing well,” he said. “This will negatively affect yields.”
Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board chief executive Dr Andrew Matibiri yesterday said the late rains had also affected the opening of the tobacco marketing season as most farmers were not yet ready to sell their crop.
He said farmers could bring in their primings to the floors but they should expect low prices. “Most farmers are pruning the first four leaves and leaving the real leaves,” he said. “Buyers may decide to buy the primings, but they will fetch very low prices. This season we expect top prices for top leaves.”
Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Dr Joseph Made said the irrigated tobacco was in a better condition compared to the dry land crop which took a knock from heavy rains and the dry spell.
“Buyers should be careful when they say they want the upper leaves when they also import the same primings for blending purposes,” he said. “How can someone import blending tobacco when we have thrown away the primings? The manufacturers should give a clear explanation on this.”
Dr Made said it was not good to prematurely talk of prices without seeing the quality of the leaf.
He said Zimbabwe was not the only country affected by the rainfall as Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia had also suffered the same challenges on tobacco production.
Tobacco production had been on the increase for the past years due to the lucrative prices offered by buyers coupled with the increased number of farmers due to the land reform programme which saw more venturing into the crop.
At least 87 850 farmers have registered for the 2015 season as more of them continue to shift to tobacco due to its high returns compared to traditional crops like maize and cotton.