My latest tour of the country’s farming communities took me to Mashonaland Central and West provinces where I intended to check on how farmers are faring as we enter the 2020-21 farming season, which by all standards is still in its infancy.
I did meet farmers from different categories ranging from large-scale commercial to the communal and most of them had a common complaint — the first half of the season on the meteorological calendar is almost gone, yet the rains have not yet started in earnest.
This is despite forecasts from the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) suggesting the country would have normal to above normal rains with high chances of a La Nina weather phenomenon that is known to cause heavy downpours and sometimes flooding.
Essentially, that weather prediction made everybody excited and the general assumption among many was that by now there would be a lot of green in the fields, but as it stands, there is nothing yet to show for the promised good rains and farmers can easily be forgiven for getting anxious.
To be honest, I also shared the same feelings with them until I did some digging to find out how things were likely going to turn out given that the first half of the season starts in October and ends in December, yet October has gone without any rains and we are past mid-November and there are no meaningful rains.
In the recent past, some farmers would have their earliest dry planted maize at tasselling or knee-high stage going into the festive season, but this time around there is no such thing with irrigated tobacco forming the bulk of the green matter in most fields.
The current scenario in the fields seems to have struck a strong resemblance with what happened last season when the first half was literally dry and a complete opposite of what the weather experts had predicted.
Obviously such a striking similarity of events in the natural world cannot just be ignored, but needs to be interrogated to see what is happening and how farmers can side-step it for the better.
My curiosity saw me phoning around for some expert opinion on the matter with my first engagements failing to yield much to convince me that my fears as well as those of the farmers were unfounded, at least for the moment, and so I had to wait for the last call to believe that all was not lost.
Farmers just need to be calm with those that had not finished land preparations expected to urgently complete that stage and wait for the first effective rains of 25mm and above to start planting.
Should farmers realise that they will not be able to get draught power in time to complete the preparations, then they need to quickly secure zero-tillage equipment and take the ‘Pfumvudza’ route even if they are not part of the current Government initiated programme. What farmers now need to do is to make sure if they had chosen long season varieties, they adjust to either medium or short term so that the crop they eventually establish will ripen at the time the season will be ending.
This means that if a farmer had been planning with a variety that yields 20 tonnes per hectare in mind, then now needs to adjust the budget to suit the variety to replace her initial choice.
Obviously, the target of 20 tonnes may no longer be achievable if the rains further delay so to avoid disappointments, the farmer must now set a realistic target based on what is happening on the ground.
The painful reality, however, is that once planting happens after the 25th of November, yields start getting affected and where a farmer was expecting 25 tonnes, for instance, that target will not be scored because with each day that passes after 25 November, the farmer inevitably loses 50 kilogrammes per hectare.
This will have telling effect on the eventual yield so farmers should start getting worried if November 25 passes without them having received meaningful rains.
Of course there are lots of chances that they can plant after that date and score good yields but they will not match what they would have achieved if the rains would have started at the right time.
Naturally, it is still possible for farmers to plant even in the middle of December or in January in those areas with high temperatures but they will need to adjust the fertiliser quantities they apply to the crops.
If for instance, a farmer had intended to apply 400 kilogrammes of fertiliser, there may need to reduce the quantity to maybe 350 or 300 kilogrammes, as the yields would also have been affected and essentially not going to be the same.
Planting late usually reduces yields, hence applying the same quantities of fertiliser to a late planted crop and one planted on time will means the farmer will be wasting some part of the fertiliser because it will not be used productively.
That fertiliser will literally go to waste, so the farmer must as a rule of thumb reduce the quantities but needs to seek advice from their extension officer so that they do it properly.
The other important thing farmers should not forget is that hot temperatures like the ones prevailing are a favourite for both army worm and the fall army so they need to be on the lookout for the pest.
They will need to do regular scouting for the pest once their crop is established lest they discover its presence when it too late to salvage the crop.
It will also be crucial for farmers to make sure their fields are weed-free so that there is no competition for both sunlight and nutrients to ensure the crops grow without difficulties.
Those with the means can always use herbicides while those that cannot afford herbicides should be ready to deal with weeds once they start emerging.
Besides competing for nutrients, weeds will also be habitats for pests that sometimes eat crops or even transmit diseases.