Who’ll start the rain?

5 12 2021
Part of last season’s bumper harvest of maize, though these are heirloom maize seeds used for ornamental and breeding purposes.

Last year most of the country experienced good rain with some regions receiving record falls. This was largely influenced by a strong la Niña effect. We, in the suburbs of Harare, were not among them and recorded a sub-normal rainfall. This year the whole country is dry and rains are late despite there being another moderate la Niña effect off the coast of Ecuador. We had some good rain in the middle of November, pretty much when we expect it to happen, but nothing since. The maize that was planted with the rains has germinated but is going to be stressed in the heat of this coming week.

As the owner of a commercial seedling nursery I am not that keen on getting rain on the seedlings in what amounts to perfect conditions for disease to spread. Accordingly we make use of what are known as Colombian greenhouses which are a simple structure of poles that support a plastic sheet which keeps the rain off the seedlings. In winter part of the nursery has plastic sheet sides put in to assist the cold sensitive crops but most goes without – we have a relatively mild climate and frost is rare around the nursery. But we do need rain to replenish the boreholes (wells) that we pump for the seedlings.

This year both of the existing boreholes had to be restricted – the run-dry electronic protection system kept turning them off and we were struggling to keep up with use. The new borehole that was drilled is not great. There are some very big housing developments not far from the nursery that will almost certainly negatively impact on the ground water table in the foreseeable future and the rainfall has become increasingly unreliable. Last year, whilst most of the country received record rainfall and excellent maize harvests, we receive some two thirds of what we’d normally get, whatever “normal” means these days.

The staple food of Zimbabwe, and much of southern Africa, is maize (or corn as the Americans call it). It is a poor choice for a region beset by drought – the millet family is far better adapted to the dry conditions but to say that Zimbabweans are besotted by the mealie crop, as it’s known locally, is a fair assessment. Come the first rain every square metre of available ground in the urban area is tilled with enthusiasm and planted. The crop is tended with passion thereafter. Even the few seeds planted from the handful in the above photo have received extra attention in our veggie garden courtesy of our gardener. One of my foremen cynically commented that most of the urban-grown crop stolen but nobody lets that deter them.

The crop itself is not great food. It’s mostly carbohydrate and to make matters worse it’s preferred refined where the germ, which is the most nutritious part, has been removed. It’s then cooked into a stodgy mass of “sadza” and eaten with relish, gravy and meat. I have to admit it does taste good with a stew but I avoid it, and most other carbohydrates, as part of my weight control programme.

At the time of writing the next rain showers can be expected in a week’s time. This has gradually moved back over the past week. Some of my seedling customers are delaying planting their crops until the rain arrives. Most are not dependent on the rain for irrigation, that would be foolhardy in this climate, but I do grow a lot of gum trees for a regular customer and their programme is too big to irrigate. So we must all wait and I watch the water running into the main reservoir with concern.

This month’s ENSO forecast courtesy of Columbia University

The New Farmer (TNF)

25 07 2011

“Have you grown cabbages before?” I asked The New Farmer.
“No”, he replied.
“Well, what type of soil will you be growing them on?”.
“Red”, replied TNF.
“Well, that’s good” I replied. “Heavy soils are much easier for hortiuclture”. “Have you taken a soil sample?” I continued hopefully. No he had not and he seemed a bit non-plussed as to what a soil sample actually was.

TNF had come into my office this morning having paid a deposit to for us to grow 35,000 cabbage seedlings for a hectare so I felt obliged to part with information, and who knows, the good word might get around and we certainly need the business right now.

“Tell me about the irrigation” he said as the “Brief Guide to Growing Cabbages” was printing from my computer.
“Right”, I thought, “this one is really clueless”, but I launched into a concise description of an over-head irrigation system. My knowledge of irrigation systems is a bit sketchy but next to his I was a veritable genius. I covered the principle of 100% overlapping patterns and touched on water replacement, emphasizing that cabbages must NEVER be stressed. I looked at TNF’s totally blank face and thought I should steer clear of Class A pans, evapotranspiration and crop factors – none of it rocket science but nevertheless necessary to grow a good crop of just about anything.

I emphasized that the 5 page guide I was giving him was just a very brief introduction and that there were BOOKS out there on the subject. TNF didn’t seem to be deterred and I didn’t want to put him off! My parting advice to him was to split the order into 2 parts 2 weeks apart so that he could get the system going a bit easier but the foreman told me later he wanted to press ahead with the full order as a one-off.

New Farmers are easily spotted in Zimbabwe. They often have town jobs so go out to the farm on the weekend in their de rigeur felt hats and twin cab pickup trucks. The farms are inevitably “acquired” from white commercial farmers and as such they don’t have to be viable straight away – they certainly aren’t paying off the banks for the land. They also seem to think that farming is easy, after all, the white commercial farmers made lots of money didn’t they? That of course is some way from the truth; a very small percentage of the whites did make good money but many did not and plenty went broke too. Nor is farming easy in Zimbabwe. Soils are not good (heavily weathered) by world standards and the climate is fickle so horticulture especially is a non-starter without a good irrigation system. The electricity supply is even more unreliable than the weather so diesel pumps are a necessity which makes the irrigation expensive. Horticulture is demanding anywhere in the world and definitely not a branch of agriculture one would want to “have a go” at. Especially in Zimbabwe!

I recommended to TNF that he go next door to the research farm and have a look at their irrigation system but he did not seem over enthusiastic. Maybe he was not the enthusiastic sort or maybe he thought he could work it out for himself. I doubt he will be back for a second crop.

Land reform programme

27 08 2008

There are actually some white farmers left on the land. I was chatting to one on Thursday who happened to pass through the nursery – I will refer to him as AG. I asked him what he was doing and he replied the same that he always had; cattle and a few crops. He did admit that he was running a few butcheries in town and like a lot of farmers was selling produce for real money. Illegal of course and to avoid the various police roadblocks set up to intercept just such trade, he moved everything at night. One of my neighbours admitted to me that he’d sold his maize and soyas for real money. Why sell maize for $15 a tonne to the government when he could sell it for $300 a tonne privately? Why indeed! AG and I got onto the topic of paying staff. He paid his entirely in goods; maize meal, soap, oil etc which the valued more than money. I don’t have the luxury of growing my own crops so pay day for me is rather stressful and indeed this weekend I had a strike to sort out over exactly that issue – extra food. AG mentioned that a neighbour of his who is a very Fat Political Cat, had the previous day paid his general labourers 7 new Zimbabwe dollars (about 7c US) for the entire month – no additional goods or food!

In the same area as AG’s farm lies the remains of Zimbabwe’s largest wheat farm – 5000ha under irrigation. Nowadays nothing useful remains. Grain stores have had doorways knocked through them, the roofs stolen and now serve as livestock pens. All combine harvesters (more than 20) and tractors (50+) lie in ruins and the irrigation system is totally defunct. Such is land “reform”.