EDITORIAL COMMENT: Expanding planting will create rural wealth

The dramatic increase in crop planting we are seeing so far this season, especially in grain and cotton, is the direct result of a combination of two factors; the good early rains that have fallen in most districts and the fact that inputs are available, and the Government inputs for small scale farmers largely fully distributed.

It is this availability of inputs, the fertiliser and the seed, that allows farmers to take advantage of the weather and start planting once their fields of plots are properly soaked.

Even if they are spacing planting out a bit, to stagger their crops just in case there are some untoward weather changes and to spread out the labour needed at harvest, that is their choice, not a necessity.

Under the Second Republic we have become used to the fact that inputs, both those supplied by the Government and those bought through commercial channels, are available on time and in adequate quantity, which is how it should be.

But that in turn follows the whole set of economic reforms put in place in 2018 so that finance is available, and on time, for the manufacturers of inputs.

Fertiliser factories for instance need to have their raw materials stacked up by mid-year at the latest if there is to be enough fertiliser in four months time.

Distribution of Government inputs has been both tightened up, to prevent cheating at any stage along the line, including when farmers sell inputs at a massive discount instead of planting and making their money from a harvest, and to ensure that the ever greater quantities needed do in fact reach the farmers, and on time.

One of the major factors in rural development this year is that 5,12 million Pfumvudza/Intwasa plots have been prepared and cleared for the Presidential inputs already this year, 80 percent more than last year.

For the first time, even with the increase in the number of farmers coming into the scheme, a large majority of the farms will have at least two plots, with the one-plot families now in a modest minority.

This is important as we work out what one of the major goals of Pfumvudza must be, seeing small-scale farmers earning a reasonable living from their farming, rather than just growing enough food to feed their families.

One plot, carefully tended, should provide enough grain for a family, and that family might well want to use on their farm some of the output from other plots.

But as a family moves into the range of two plots or more, and these are now the majority, they are moving into the stage where they start making money.

We sometimes forget that the Pfumvudza programme has double State intervention. We all applaud the provision of the technical tests and advice, and the inputs. But the other part of the programme, which all farmers share, is the guaranteed market for what they produce and want to sell.

These guaranteed markets, largely by the Grain Marketing Board, mean regardless of the total size of the harvest, whether there is a glut or whether there is scarcity, there are stable prices announced in advance, and when farmers are increasing their harvests as they are doing at the moment, this stability and guarantee becomes ever more important.

We are not yet at the glut level for any crop, although maize now in some seasons could be in significant surplus and wheat has moved into the surplus categories. It may be possible in future years to export surpluses not needed to maintain adequate reserves in case of drought or disease, but since a fair amount of our pricing looks at landed costs, the farmers getting what we might have to pay in intercontinental transport, we could be looking at other ways.

Already the Pfumvudza scheme goes far beyond just grain, maize or traditional grains, with a growing percentage of plots now being reassigned to oil seeds, groundnuts and beans, and we can expect this diversification to continue as those running the programme look at ensuring balanced harvests with all local needs met, and exports concentrating on where Zimbabwe has a competitive advantage.

In addition to the grain planting, and both maize and sorghum have seen large jumps on the area planted since last year, we are also seeing an even greater jump in percentage terms in cotton.

Almost seven times as much cotton has already been planted compared to last year, partly because of the early rains and on-time inputs, but also because the Government has been sorting out Cottco, and increasing its shareholding in that company, so farmers are now trusting that they will be paid, and paid on time.

Cotton traditionally has been a major smallholder cash crop, the area planted being what a single family, in a serious press of hard work at harvest time, can pick the whole modest field.

Large commercial growers always have the problem of finding labour, or using expensive machinery to produce a slightly lower quality harvest, but a single field family can make some serious money so long as the inputs come on time and the marketing is done properly. Both conditions are now being met by the Government.

Small-scale farming around the world can be profitable, and many farmers in say Europe do have small farms, but with a wide range of products and a stress on quality they make a lot of money.

An average French farmer is quite likely to be selling a dozen products, some of which will actually be processed on a small farm, and this is one reason why they drive into Paris on tractors when they want to make a point; they can afford the tractors as a matter of course.

It seems this sort of multi-product model is being pressed by Government. Not only are the farmers encouraged to grow a wide range of crops, even on small plots, but there are also the Presidential schemes now being built up for goats and poultry.

The average rural family is moving into the area where it will have multiple streams of revenue as it moves out of poverty into middle-class comfort.

This is rural development that really works, giving farmers and others the opportunity to turn hard work into crisp cash, and we should not forget the others.

As farmers make money others in their community will be able to earn their living as the providers of goods and services, since their will be markets for what they can make and the skills they have.

Next year, because we have been doing things right at the start of this rainy season, there should be a lot more money in the farming areas as they bring in sell their growing harvests, and this will accelerate the economic growth we all need.

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