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





Insults and injury

19 05 2016

From today’s papers:

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 500k tonnes, we are going hungry here.

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 600k tonnes, we here are going hungry.

 

 

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

 





Not an insect season

14 04 2015

Stick insects are difficult to photograph. Have you ever tried photographing a stick? They are aptly named.

Not great camouflage

Not great camouflage. The front legs are pointed towards the top left of the photo. The head is about 1/3 down from the top left corner.

This one I rescued off the floor in the dining room one morning. How it had got in I don’t know but Zak would almost certainly squashed it with his nose or a paw so I lifted it up onto a vase of roses and there it stayed for the next three days until Marianne took pity on it and moved it outside.

It has not been a great season for insects. Come to think of it, it has not been a great season for growing crops either. The rains were very late starting last year and early planted maize succumbed to a long dry spell that lasted into the first week of December. Savvy farmers (who could afford it) replanted after the first good rains in December but short-season maize, as it is known, does not yield heavily at the best of times and erratic rains since December have really given the late plantings a hard time. And now to top it all the rains have finished earlier than usual.

Insects of course also flourish in good rainy seasons so I have not seen anything like the variety and numbers this season that I have seen in previous years. I should be seeing a profusion of golden orb spiders in the nursery about now but they have not appeared either. I guess it must be something to do with a low prey population.

Droughts and erratic rainy seasons are nothing new in this part of southern Africa but in the distant past we had strategic reserves to fall back on. And farmers to grow the reserves in the first place. Now much of the once productive commercial farmland lies idle and Zambia produces a surplus of maize, thanks largely to displaced Zimbabwean commercial farmers. The government is bankrupt and the President, Robert Mugabe, has gone on a state trip to South Africa to try and attract investment. But South Africa does not have spare cash so I guess the begging bowl will be once again held out to the World Food Programme.





Cosmos season

24 03 2014

If the cosmos is out summer is coming to and end. It’s been a strange summer; very patchy rainfall though the overall quantity was about normal. The south of the country had significant flooding at the beginning of February but it’s all very dry now just when the maize and soya crops need moisture to fill the cobs and pods. So I guess we will be begging for food from the WFP and others.

Well, the cosmos is pretty enough.

I caught this bee and caterpillar sharing a flower.

I caught this bee and caterpillar sharing a flower.

 





Rural visit

7 02 2013

“They didn’t pay their electricity bill” Archie replied to my question as to why the Mhangura mine had closed. I thought there may be a bit more to it than that but there was no doubt as to the impact the collapse of this copper mine in northern Zimbabwe had on the town of the same name. I’d picked up my guide, Archie, at the local GMB (Grain Marketing Board depot) for the trip into the surrounding farming area to see a customer who had problems with some seedlings he’d collected.  The GMB, once a cornerstone of the nation’s agricultural economy, was now very run down and the signpost was a hand-painted piece of metal propped up by stones at the side of the road.

It had been a long trip out of Harare on the road north-west of the capital towards Lake Kariba but I’d been interested to take a trip back to the area where I’d worked on returning from my travels abroad in 1990. Turning off at the township and GMB depot of Lions’ Den (yes, there really were lots of lions here in the early part of the 20th century!) I got onto the very quiet Mhangura road and put my foot down – there was little to miss apart from the occasional herd of cattle being driven along the side of the road. The rains had been late coming to this part of the country but the crops were still dismal – small, yellow and very uneven. This was a far cry from the area I’d known 20 years ago when the area was populated by mainly white commercial farmers.

I wasn't going fast when I took this - promise!

Long, straight and uncongested – I wasn’t going fast when I took this – promise!

Having picked up Archie we made our way east towards the Raffingora area and got chatting. Of Zambian descent he’d grown up in Harare and worked for a while as a farm manager for a number of black farmers but got fed up being given half the inputs he needed and then told to “make a plan” so he’d set himself up as a commodity broker. He didn’t go back to Zambia much but said if things got much worse in Zimbabwe he might have to.  We bumped and crashed along a truly appalling road that had clearly not seen any official maintenance for quite some time. The countryside was still beautiful despite the collapsed tobacco barns, power cables lying in the fields and the dismal maize crops clearly not suited to being grown in an area once famed for its tobacco.

It took the better part of an hour to do the 20 or so km to the customer’s farm. I dropped off Archie at the rather decrepit farm workshop area (clearly there was protocol involved here as he was definitely not invited to accompany us) and went with the farmer to the lands. Also of Zambian extraction he was an engineer by training but preferred to be a farmer. The cabbages were not in good condition, largely due to unsuitable soils so I dispensed what advice I could before collecting Archie and making our way back to Mhangura.

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

It was a long slow drive back to Harare along the congested Kariba road but I’d fuelled up with biltong from the renowned Lions’ Den Butchery which was just as good as I remembered from 20 years back. Getting back home I noticed a missed call on my cellphone from the farmer; he was just checking to see I’d got home safely. Clearly I’d made a good impression!