Leroy Dzenga Features Writer
Over the years, the mere mention of Gokwe without prefixing it with the word cotton was “blasphemous” in local agriculture.
Since independence, the district made cotton production its trademark activity.
However, a recent tour of the area showed a different reality. It is now more maize and sweet reeds (ipwa) on farms than it is cotton.
This new scenery is not by coincidence.
Farmers in the area have moved away from cotton, disillusioned by the market prices.
Ms Angeline Mureya, a smallholder farmer in the Gokwe-Kubulani Constituency said it was more beneficial for them to focus on maize than the costly cotton.
“Over the years, we have been growing cotton and we knew that we would get some money to run the household. Things have changed though, it is now a cost to grow cotton,” she said.
In 2015, a downward review on the prices saw the Grade D cotton being pegged at $0,30 cents per kilogramme.
“We now get US30 cents on the market and for someone who is buying their own inputs it makes no sense,” said Ms Mureya.
The size of her land makes it difficult for her family to enjoy economies of scale garnered from buying in bulk.
She added: “Last season I had 50kg cotton and at 30 cents the money was going to amount to about $15,” she said. “I realised that it does not help to try and sell it. I would spend more money on transport.”
The 50kg she grew was out of custom, but she is considering devoting all the available land to sorghum, which is now better paying.
“We now plant sorghum, at least breweries offer better prices and we can send our children to school with the money,” said Ms Mureya.
Rains have not helped her prospects this season, the clogged water may mean a weaker cotton grade.
“I am not expecting anything from the cotton we planted,” said Ms Mureya. “There is too much water. In fact, we are regretting the decision. We should have planted more sorghum in that space and get more money.”
Prices being offered by the cotton buyers have also affected commercial farmers who believe they are being short changed.
Mr Sungano Ndlovu, a Gokwe commercial farmer, shared the same sentiments with Ms Mureya, describing growing cotton under the current price as a waste of time.
“Most have scaled down on cotton because US30 cents per kilogramme is a joke,” he said. “Some of us are farmers and that is our only source of livelihood, we are better off with maize.”
Most of the sales in the past three years have been used to offset input loans from cotton companies, leaving farmers with next to nothing from their proceeds.
“People have lost their scotch-carts and cattle after signing declaration of assets forms with cotton companies,” said Mr Ndlovu. “This is after they sell their crop and the money they get fails to meet the cost of inputs supplied.”
He added: “Fertilizers cost about $40 and I planted five hectares of cotton. I used about 10 bags, honestly if it wasn’t for the Presidential Input Support Scheme I wouldn’t have grown cotton this season”.
Villagers in Gokwe understand their soils are not fit for maize production.
Their wish is not to plant maize, but the returns from cotton have not been flattering.
“In this soil it makes sense to plant cotton,” said Mr Ndlovu. “The chances of getting a satisfactory yield from maize are low, but at this point it is better than growing cotton.”
Mr Ndlovu said if it was not for command agriculture, he would have not planted cotton this season.
“There was no way I was going to plant cotton this year without intervention, with the way some lost their property with contract farming after failing to pay for inputs,” he said.
Mr Ndlovu said they tried to lobby Government on cotton prices, but to no avail.
“In 2012, I was part of the people who marched to the Cotton Ginners Association offices,” he said. “We were asking for higher prices, but up to now nothing tangible has happened.”
The farmers’ wish is that the cotton prices be raised to US55 cents per kg to allow farmers to source inputs without borrowing.
An agricultural extension officer who works with the cotton farming community fears for his relevance with the falling popularity of the crop, especially in his area of work, Gokwe.
Mr Victor Mapondo, an assistant buyer for Cottco, said the delays in payment were also inconveniencing the farmers.
“The problem is that farmers aren’t getting their payments on time,” he said. “People are still owed money from June 2016 and this makes them shun the crop.”
Cotton has been overtaken by red sorghum in Gokwe.
“People are surviving on red sorghum at $3 per bucket and they sell to Chibuku and some countries who always pay in time. It is difficult for cotton companies to compete,” Mr Mapondo said.
This season appears to be tough for farmers as the incessant rains have damaged the road network in Gokwe, doubling the transport costs.
“Transport is now expensive since the roads were damaged last season,” said Mr Mapondo. “It was $5 per two kilometres, but now truck owners are demanding $10 for the same distance in moving inputs.
“When the cotton selling season begins, things may get worse.”
Member of Parliament for Gokwe-Kubulani Cde Leonard Chikomba said the input assistance from Government was the reason why there was even cotton in Gokwe this season.
“People took advantage of the free inputs which were available this season. What you have seen are signs of recovery in cotton production,” he said.
He called on farmers to make smart business decisions in their operations.
“These farmers you say are complaining of high transport costs should organise themselves and come to us, we will organise affordable transport for them,” said Cde Chikomba. “They should shun service providers who are out to milk them.”
Engagements have been made between cotton buyers and farmer representatives to find amicable solutions.
“We had a meeting with Cottco representatives asking for them to pay out the balances from last season,” said Cde Chikomba. “They promised to send the money through mobile banking systems, but many have not received their dues yet.
Speaking on behalf of his constituents, Cde Chikomba said a favourable price of about US65 cents per kg would be enough to attract many to return to cotton farming.
Government is encouraging a new approach to cotton farming for profits to be realised.
Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Deputy Minister (Crop and Mechanisation) Davison Marapira said cotton farmers should improve their yield per hectare.
“What is low in this country is the cotton yield per hectare,” he said. “Other countries are ranking at 3 000 kgs per hectare, while our local farmers average at 500 kgs per hectare.”
Deputy Minister Marapira said even if the price was raised to $1 per kg, the farmers will not break even with their low yield per hectare.
He encouraged a paradigm shift in cotton growing.
“Farmers should engage in precision farming,” he said. “They should test their soils, then they know the property of their soils. They should know if their soil is acidic or alkalinic, so that they use the correct fertilizers and seed.”
On farmers who are losing property to cotton companies, he challenged them to be honest.
“Farmers should not redirect the inputs they receive from their partners to other uses,” he said. “They have to pay back whoever finances their operations, that is standard business procedure.”
Deputy Minister Marapira said farmers should control weeds to grow yields, because in the worst case, a farmer might lose 70 percent of their crop.
“Farmers should have a cocktail of chemicals needed for cotton,” he said. “There are about 12 key chemicals they should use to gain a satisfactory yield.”
Deputy Minister Marapira said farmers should follow proper agronomy, engaging expert advice whenever necessary to get full returns from their activities.
With the cotton prices going down globally, it is only a matter of time before more farmers across the country shun cotton or opt for increasing their yield per hectare.
Gokwe farmers seem to be the first ones who have responded to the fall in profitability of a crop termed as “white gold”, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will maintain their stance.
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