Even a drought-stricken season has a silver lining

Obert Chifamba Agri-Insight

A DROUGHT is known to pose serious challenges for populations whose livelihoods depend principally on agriculture given that it causes water stress, crop failure and or reduced yields.

The devastating effects of a drought do not end with crops,  but extend to ravishing other natural resources as well as livestock, something that always impacts on rural livelihoods mostly.

The 2023/24 El Niño season drought that has hit Zimbabwe and other countries, particularly in the Southern African region, will require farmers to look beyond the drought and see how they can mitigate its impact on their livelihoods.

No one observes a stone that is about to strike them without either ducking or blocking it so farmers need to look at all possible ways of smothering the harsh impact of this El Niño induced disaster.

Of course, the Government has already started distributing relief food to the worst affected areas and will naturally move to cover all needy areas, but it is always good for farmers to also do something about the situation. There are those who are fortunate enough to have reliable water sources nearby and can always grow crops that can easily mature for the market and earn a bit of cash.

It is always easier for anyone to have a fall-back position to lean on when the worst comes to the worst.

Those farmers looking to raise an income quickly following a failed crop can consider growing quick-ripening vegetable options that allow them to buy staple food from those that have surplus or from conventional markets.

Usually vegetables have a short growing season and can provide a relatively fast turnaround for income generation. Vegetable options that farmers can grow include those from the leafy category (for example spinach, rape, covo) that can mature in four to six weeks or even less.

Green beans also feature prominently among the options with their bush varieties known to mature and are ready for harvesting in 50 to 60 days, thereby providing a quick source of income.

This will provide the farmer with the cash she needs to take care of some domestic concerns, that include food as well. Farmers can also produce cucumbers, some of whose varieties can grow and mature in about 50 to 70 days.

They offer fast-growing options for the farmer, which allows them to generate incomes to purchase food while waiting for longer-term solutions to materialise.

This option of growing quick-ripening crops is mostly possible for those farmers that have listened to the advice on water harvesting. Every season, millions of cubic metres of rainwater flow over the land, including the farmers’ fields into rivers and eventually into dams or lakes yet most farmers do not seem to notice it.

This is always an opportunity for them to harvest the water or trap it for later use.

This run-off can easily come in handy during stressful times like the current situation, hence the need for farmers to be proactive and not wait to react to a situation when it is already too late.

It is, however, refreshing to note that the Government has since introduced a borehole drilling programme that will enable communities to establish gardens where they will grow crops to supplement the food from other sources.

The reality on the ground is that the programme may take long to reach all corners of the country, but the people there still have to eat, hence the need for farmers to have a plan B always in the face of the growing climate change challenges.

These precautionary measures should not only be focusing on saving people from famine.

There is livestock to take care of. It does not require rocket science for anyone to appreciate that droughts destroy everything in their path.

Everything is affected; agriculture is diminished and farms are left without water and domestic animals are left without adequate feed stocks, for instance, pastures for grazers.

This makes it difficult even for those who may choose to dispose of some livestock units to do so because they will be in bad condition decent prices.

Of course, many farmers are moving to install irrigation systems on their farms to combat the problem of lack of rain and are using rivers, dams or springs as sources of water but these also run the risk of drying up in excessive drought situations. This has made it necessary for irrigating farmers to have boreholes on standby too.

On the one hand, livestock farmers can also help their cause by harvesting grass and making hay bales for use during lean times of the year.

The current drought has seen many farmers in the country’s arid regions recording deaths among their cattle, which should be mitigated through supplementary feeding.

In most cases there are some rains even if the season will eventually turn bad.

These rains usually leave in their trail some grass growing, so farmers should just develop a culture of always harvesting that grass and stashing it somewhere for later use.

The other way of cushioning themselves would be through the adoption of diverse agricultural systems, which increases their chances of having at least one or two farming options that may survive the drought or fare better.

This will provide the much-needed starting point in the event of total crop failure.

Instead of farmers only focusing on one kind of production, integrated systems that combine the likes of crops and livestock; crops and forestry; livestock and forestry; or crops, livestock and forestry can do the trick.

Agroforestry integrates trees and crops in such a way that the field or farm remains productive all year long allowing farmers to earn some income in all seasons.

Its systems are an important tool for climate change adaptation in agriculture. This farming method has adaptation benefits that include smothering the impact of extreme weather such as drought, heatwaves, cold waves, heavy rain and floods, improving soil and water availability, attracting pollinators and improving biodiversity.

As part of diversifying activities on the farm, farmers can also adopt such enterprises as bee keeping and mushroom farming and sell their products to niche markets that in most cases pay well.

The bottom line is that the farmer just needs a side income with which he can attend to the needs of the family. In most cases farmers feel robbed each time they sell produce because most prices are set by world commodity markets that do not factor in local demand and supply factors.

It is just important for the farmer to be a good marketer of his produce to fetch decent prices that allow him to buy the supplementary food that he needs as he waits for help, mostly from Government in drought situations like the current one.

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