Editorial Comment: Bountiful maize stocks tell good agric story

he news that the Grain Marketing Board has stocks of maize and traditional grains to last until almost the end of November next year shows the great gains made in agriculture under the Second Republic.

The GMB stocks cover the commercial sales and the estimated requirements for food aid. Besides these stocks there are the even larger total stocks held by farming families from their last harvest to take them through to the next harvest, plus any stocks held by the private sector through their own contracts and previous purchases.

The figures and statistics will be good. In modern farming at long last serious efforts are made to find out what farmers, from the smallest small-scale farmers to the largest estates, actually harvested, what they retained for on-farm and household consumption, and what they have sold.

These figures in fact drive the estimates for food aid, which come from GMB stocks, since such aid goes to families which did not harvest enough and have no alternative and adequate assured source of income to buy food.

So Zimbabwe is in good shape. But it must be noted that the stocks come from both the past summer seasons. The 2020-2021 season produced a respectable surplus, over and above the vital 12 months food supply, and this surplus was bought on delivery and was properly stored.

The last season was not so wonderful. While rain volumes were mostly “normal” between late November and May, the distribution was seriously abnormal. 

The rains started late, then fell very heavily for some weeks, then stopped with most farmers facing a long dry spell that did so much damage, and then resumed as fairly good rains but lasting all the way into May. 

The upshot was a lower harvest, but added to the carryover stocks was enough with a bit over.

It is worth noting in passing that both seasons produced better harvests than we have seen in recent years because of the new stress by Government to have the inputs available nationally, and to have them physically on the farms of those farmers, the overwhelming majority, who qualify for one of the State input schemes or guarantees before the first drops of rain were seen.

That meant in a really good season farmers were planting as soon as the soil was wet enough, and even in a dubious season gave a better harvest than could otherwise be expected. So that needs to be continued, which is being done since inputs are now being moved onto the farms already.

The second lesson we need to remember is that we must maintain the guaranteed markets for all farmers, the GMB in this case, even in good years when harvests are in surplus because sooner or later, and probably sooner, we will have a deficit and then stored surpluses become very important. 

Probably, for something as critical as summer grains, most in Government and the country at large would probably find something close to a six-month surplus to be exceptionally useful.

While the last season was not technically a drought, the effects were similar to drought in lost harvest. This also means the GMB must have the capacity to store the grains. The GMB has already announced it is renovating the huge silo complexes that were inherited at independence and built in the 1980s, and there are plans to add to these. 

But even the temporary storage of grain, in bags under cover, appears to have been done properly and this is why the stocks are adequate.

One question arises over who pays for the storage. The GMB can fund normal consumption by the modest margin it adds between what it pays the farmers and what it charges the millers up to 12 months later when it sells grain.

But if the GMB is to maintain stocks in addition to the commercial requirements, and if the grain is grown then it is obliged to buy it, it needs access to working capital and it needs to store these surpluses. 

That appears to be something that must be in the Government budget, the insurance premium needed to cope with drought or flood and ensure that we have enough grain, in store, so no one goes hungry.

As we increase our storage infrastructure there appears to be room for public-private partnerships to own silo farms, and even run them. Those in both the private sector and the public sector who want to store grain can pay agreed charges and with high-quality infrastructure waste and spoilage are reduced to negligible levels.

The need for a decent reserve is obvious to everyone who has seen problems Zimbabwe has faced in the past, with droughts in successive years being a certainty, at least once a decade. At the same time we also need to think about how much grain we need in longer-term storage. There are potential export markets, and one of the most interesting is in Eastern Africa.

Southern Africa does not really open up export markets. When Zimbabwe has good rains, our neighbours tend to have good rains, and when we go short they go short. But El Nina weather patterns tend to produce good rains in Southern Africa, but poorer rains in East Africa, while the El Nino patterns do it the other way round.

That, rather conveniently seems to open up opportunities for farmers across almost half of Africa to ship surpluses, and certainly opens the doors to better regional co-operation as everyone takes advantage of the climate change the world faces. 

We also need to think about regional demand as well as our own as our farmers continue to expand production, since at some stage, if surpluses become regular and markets are limited the farmers may need help to broaden the range of what they grow, with some limits placed on grain that cannot be eaten or sold. 

This will place greater need tor top-class planning so that farmers can make enough money.

But this is just refinements of what the Second Republic has already managed. At present we are now back in the happy position of growing our own food, once we feed in carryover stocks from the better seasons. That is one important result of the Second Republic’s programmes.

The other is that farm incomes are rising, as our farming communities go commercial, and all that might now be required to is to work out what crops need to be grown each season after consulting our friends for regional demand, and working out what we need and what we need to store, and then ensuring the mix of seed packs reflects this.

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