Access to critical info key for agriculture

HARARE - The rains which fell in most parts of the country on Monday must have come as a relief to farmers across Zimbabwe as they injected some bit of hope in an increasingly hopeless population.

Things were looking bad, really bad in previous weeks. Crops in most parts of the country were experiencing severe moisture stress, driving most farmers who had invested heavily in the soil into panic.

Weather patterns obtaining beforehand were beginning to slowly show that the skies did not seem prepared to open up soon, with prospects for another drought becoming more and more of a reality with each passing day.

Earlier, there had been reports of crops — especially maize — in certain areas already having been declared complete write-offs this farming season.

The situation was dire in the drier agro-ecological regions. Peri-urban plots around Harare and other cities were also showing signs of severe moisture stress.

Zimbabwe has five agro-ecological regions, which inform farmers on the type of crop and even specific cultivar they must plant with the help of agricultural extension officers close to their areas.

Droughts do not only threaten crops but livestock as well as pastures are quickly decimated or they dwindle significantly putting cattle, goats, sheep and other animals in great danger.

While there obviously has been relief that rains — with the potential to change Zimbabwe’s cropping season — have finally come, it calls for some self-introspection on authorities to ask whether they were prepared for any eventuality that might have befallen the nation.

Zimbabwe’s economy is agro-based with poor farming seasons most certainly having ripple effects on other sectors far divorced from work on the farms.

This panic was predictable given the amounts that had been sunk in the form of land preparation, seed, fertilisers, chemicals and labour among other costs incurred on the farm. Prospects of all this going to waste was almost turning into reality.

Ironically, Zimbabwe recorded above normal rainfall last year with the heavy downpours — in which lives were lost — damaging bridges and roads in some places while causing flooding in others, especially the drier parts of the country. The Matabeleland provinces and some parts of Masvingo were the hardest hit.

The signals sent through the past weeks must have been warning enough on the part of government.

Food provision to citizens is the State’s sole responsibility should crops fail. However, nothing seems to have been happening on the ground to suggest government was preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Government’s early warning systems did not come up with the required information on time because. Some farmers had already sold away part of their grain in anticipation of a fair season.

Although the majority of farmers have never trusted forecasts and related information given by the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) because they believe it is not reliable, they risk premising their decisions on non-scientific systems. Once the MSD begins to give accurate predictions, farmers will not ignore them.

There is certain critical information that farmers would want in advance to ensure a hassle-free season, including the envisaged rainfall patterns for the impending  season as well as dam levels.

Information on disease and pest invasions is also very critical to ensure farmers make appropriate decisions on the coming season.

Almost yearly, government’s approach has not been satisfactory. For the peasant farmer — who almost entirely relies on the State for inputs like seed and fertilisers — has never had these on time.

Some farmers have resorted to traditional knowledge systems that have worked miracles for them but this does not push the burden off the shoulders of central government to provide citizens with requisite information timely.

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