Conversation with a Commercial Farmer

Commercial farmer highlights the impacts of the drought on the agricultural industry. 

Commercial farmers are under a lot of pressure to sustain their agriculture. Apart from being national suppliers of food products, they need to ensure that their farms remain productive during tough times of drought under financial strain.

We spoke to Andre Schulenburg, who is both a commercial crop and livestock farmer in the North West dry-land region. He shares his experience of navigating farm life amidst the current drought crisis in South Africa.

Water shortages impacts agriculture

Water shortages have prevailed in most parts of the country since 2015, with areas like the North West, the Free State, Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal being most affected. According to the Department of Water and Sanitation, the North West has been hardest hit by the drought. Schulenburg shares how his farm was impacted by the lack of water.

“Due to the fact that we are not irrigation farmers, our crops are fully dependant on the yearly rainfall. You do find some irrigation farmers that irrigate their crops, and they are normally found next to the main rivers in South Africa, Orange and Vaal river. The Hartswater Irrigation scheme for example is the biggest of its sort, and was envisioned by Cecil J. Rhodes. Looking at the animals, we may use in the region of a million litres of water to provide for the 6000 sheep and 200 000 chickens. Essentially, dry-land farmers therefor do not utilize any water and are wholly dependent on rain.”

There are alternative sources of water, says Schulenburg. Some of the water that he used on the farm is obtained through boreholes that have been around for years. “To date they have not run dry, despite the continuous drought.”

Another commercial maize farmer, Hansie Jordaan, based in Gauteng shares Schulenburg’s sentiments. Many farmers in the dryland region prefer to rely on boreholes as the main source of water. These boreholes have not really been affected by the drought, Jordaan says. However, dams on his farm that collects rainwater are empty for the first time in seventy years.

Schulenburg says that the El Niño weather pattern has been present the last four years and that it has led to below average rainfall. He notes that the rainfall pattern also changed from previous El Niño events:

“What we normally see during such an El Niño pattern is a total absence of widespread rain – i.e. rain that spreads over most of the western, central and eastern parts of South Africa. This is the normal summer rains that we are used to. With the current El Niño, you will always find spot rain. This means, one rain meter on the farm will have received 20 mm of rain, while another meter on the same farm only 1km away is completely dry.”

He reasons that this is why some parts of the country are drier than other regions. The normal rainfall that his farm in Lichtenburg receives varies between 600 and 700mm per year. The last few years the rainfall was around 200 to 250mm.

In terms of long term changes, Schulenburg informs us that the weather patterns have changed since the 1970’s. The Schulenburg family has been practising agriculture on this farm for 100 years. The most noticeable change in climate manifests through a shifting seasonal pattern. Instead of planting in October to be prepared for September rains, they now plant in December for the February rains. “The August winds have also shifted and now happens during mid-September,Schulenburg shares.

Human cost of the drought

The Schulenburg farm produces mostly dry-land maize and sunflower. Yet, due to the continuous drought, they have been forced to find alternative means of income that are less rain dependent.

“This was done by incorporating a poultry and sheep feedlot, that provide the public market with protein.  We are also at this stage looking into the Chinese market, exporting pecan nuts.”

This drought has been called the worst in South Africa’s recorded history, and will change the landscape of farming as we know it. When asked about the consequences of the drought, Schulenburg shared the following:

“Farming was essentially a family affair, with workers, the sons of workers etc. farming together with the farmer for years on end. Farmers are forced to sell their farms, resulting in job losses and bigger commercial farming companies buying the smaller farms.”

According to him, no support has been granted from the government to commercial farmers. “I know of farmers who have been farming for years that have now been forced to sell their farms as their debt has caught up with them.”

The people who have been most heavily impacted by the drought and its consequences on agriculture are the farmworkers who lose their jobs due to farms being sold. 879 000 people in South Africa have been employed on farms. An estimated 6 500 jobs have been lost in the sugar cane industry alone, says an AgriSA report for 2016.

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