The current drought in the Western Cape – the worst in a 100 years – has nudged the agricultural sector into a great state of jeopardy, setting in motion unprecedented levels of risk and uncertainty in an industry which already had an oversupply of these. Low rain-fall, erratic climate patterns, and increasingly declining water dam levels have resulted in lower than expected yields, which, in turn, have tremendously increased farm-debt accumulation. According to Agbiz, farm debt is at an all-time high at a staggering R130 billion, much of which can be credited to the drought. Needless to say, this has not deterred the Western Cape farmer who, through a combination of hard work and strategy, has become the ultimate embodiment of the age-old Afrikaner saying: Die Boer Saal Maak A Plan.
The most positive ramification of the drought was the mass adoption of resource-optimizing innovations by farmers who would have otherwise never given much thought to the idea of using cutting edge technology to make strategic farming decisions. To this end, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture in collaboration with Hortgrow – the deciduous fruit research institute – had developed an online application, aptly named FruitLook. FruitLook is an open access digital platform that allows farmers to monitor orchards and vineyards with satellite imagery and weather information. The database consists of information related to leaf area index, vegetation index, evapotranspiration deficit, biomass water use efficiency, as well as leaf nitrogen content, and covers approximately 200 000 hectares of fruit crop area. The portal instantly attracted 450 users who accessed a total of 35 000 hectares of satellite based information on a field to field basis. FruitLook was so successful, farmers recorded additional earnings of R7 036 from wine grapes, R25 630 from deciduous fruit, as well as R33 850 from table grapes per hectare with a 10% input savings and yield increase. Furthermore, water use efficiency on farms had increased by up to 10-30%, essentially mitigating the water shortage crisis in the province. The precarious and uncertain nature of agriculture had met its match in the dynamic Western Cape farmer. And the end result, of course, is that the agricultural industry in the province still remains the most competitive in both real and nominal terms. This was recently validated by the contribution of agriculture to South Africa’s 2.5% growth ascension out of recession. The agricultural sector’s growth in the second quarter of 2017 was a staggering 33.6%, the biggest growth rate of all industries combined. This was primarily due to record output levels in field crops such as maize and wheat. Maize in particular is currently experiencing a historical output growth with yield forecasts estimating that the country will produce an incredible 16, 4 million tonnes by the end of the year, a huge leap to the current record of 14, 7 million tonnes produced in 1981. This is of course great news for consumers, precisely the poor, as that amicable law of demand and supply decrees that the price of maize and wheat drop, thereby depressing the price of such stable foods as mealie meal and bread, essentially curbing food insecurity and malnutrition. It’s important to note this would have never been possible without the resilience and strategic planning of farmers.
Agriculture is the mainstay of any economy, and this is no less evident than in the South African context. It is the only industry whose spill-over effects, both in terms of input provision and per capita income, are felt by all the industries across the economic spectrum. And since the primary drivers of agriculture are farmers, many of whom work tirelessly to ensure all of us enjoy a decent meal three times a day, credit for the economic prosperity of the country ought to be granted to them.