While memories of ‘Day Zero’ warnings in late 2017 and early 2018 might be fading in some Cape Town residents’ minds, the effects of the severe water shortages are still visible in some farming communities. Wandile Sihlobo of Agbiz shares highlights into the rainfall and potential harvest of winter crops in the Western Cape.

A poor wine grape harvest

This is specifically the case in agricultural production, as the sector has not yet fully recovered from the damage of the 2017 drought. The slow recovery has been evident in, among others, the poor wine grape harvest as well as the harvest of some horticultural products this year and in 2018. This occurred despite the recent improvement in rainfall. The province will have to receive average or above-average rainfall for a few more seasons in order for orchards to bounce back to pre-2017 levels.

The recent rainfall across the Western Cape set a good basis for such potential improvement. In the week of 22 July 2019, the provincial dam levels averaged 50%, which is roughly in line with the corresponding week last year.

Rising dam levels

Given that the rains continued for the better part of last week, Agbiz suspects that the dam levels data update, which will be released later today, will show further improvement. This would be a welcome development. That said, it is recognised that some areas within the province received much higher rainfall than others. For that reason, dam levels vary across regions.

The rainfall will not only benefit the horticultural fields; winter grains and oilseeds will also benefit from improved moisture. The Western Cape accounts for 60% of South Africa’s winter wheat plantings, which means a potential improvement in the province’s winter crop could have wider positive spillover to the country’s wheat fortunes.

Farmers remain cautions of erratic weather conditions

Moreover, the Western Cape has lifted its wheat plantings by 2% from the area planted in 2018. This is a fairly small improvement and suggests that farmers remain cautious of erratic weather conditions.

The province is also a major producer of barley, canola and oats, which all stand to benefit from more sustained improvement in weather conditions. Encouragingly, feedback from farmers following the recent rainfall in the province has been positive, with winter crops reportedly in good shape.

There is, nonetheless, a need for more rainfall over the coming months in order to sustain the winter crops in good growing condition, which could then lead to higher yields. To this end, there is still some level of uncertainty.

On 28 June 2019, the South African Weather Service cautioned that there is a high likelihood of dryness between July and September 2019. Seeing that the weather events in July 2019 proved the agency’s estimates wrong, yielding rainfall in July, August will hopefully follow a similar scenario.

Consistent rainfall is needed

The winter crops will need moisture at least until the end of September, which is when all crops would have matured. Also, winter crops in the Western Cape are generally rain-fed, hence the need for consistent rainfall. However, the horticultural fields will need moisture throughout the year, with August and September crucial months for next season’s harvest, specifically for wine grapes.

Rainfall in the Western Cape will not only be beneficial for farmers and agribusinesses operating in the province, but it will also have positive spin-offs on the agricultural labour market and broader agricultural economy.

Over the past five years, the Western Cape has consistently been the leading employer in primary agriculture. The province accounted for 23% of the 829 000 jobs over this period. From an agricultural economy perspective, this makes the Western Cape the second biggest contributor after KwaZulu-Natal.

More importantly, though, developments in the Western Cape serve as an important reminder of the urgency of thinking about strategies to shield farming activities in a world where we will increasingly have to contend with the unpredictable effects of climate change. – Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz

Wandile Sihlobo, head of economic and agribusiness intelligence at Agbiz, shares highlights in his update on agricultural commodity markets. Click here for the full report on agri markets for the major commodities.

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