COVID-19 infections reached its peak in South Africa by the middle of August this year. No one can dispute the severity of the virus’s impact on the country’s economy and people. Statistics provided by the Department of Health paint a clear picture of the predicament many citizens continue to face. Some people are sick and suffering, while others have not survived.

However, in many ways, the economic consequences brought on by the lockdown regulations are even more destructive than the virus itself. Extensive job losses are predicted, and economists warn that unemployment could rise to approximately 40%.

Challenges experienced in the agri value chain

The agricultural sector is one of many sectors affected by the coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Despite agriculture being declared an essential service, the sector has been affected both directly and indirectly. Although agricultural activities have continued successfully during the lockdown in some cases, activities have been disrupted in others.

Causes of these interruptions include employees contracting the virus and having to self-isolate for 14 days, the unavailability of transportation to farms for those who reside elsewhere, and the unavailability or late delivery of inputs such as seedlings, fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. This article aims to outline some of the obstacles the farming community face due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Each link in the chain is affected differently

Agriculture is a major contributor to South Africa’s gross domestic product and agricultural commodities make a significant contribution to the country’s fiscal development. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown regulations have interrupted the agricultural value chain, which emphasises the connectivity of various role-players involved in producing and delivering goods to consumers through a sequence of activities.

It is also true that each role-player in the value chain was affected in different ways. Figure 1 illustrates the agricultural value chain beginning with land preparation, then input availability for crop production and livestock husbandry, before addressing issues pertaining to processing and packaging. It continues to list the challenges experienced by producers and other role-players concerning produce storage and distribution, and finally at the end markets.

Figure 1: Agricultural value chain and challenges during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Interruptions during the land preparation stage and the required fertiliser application may result in severe crop losses. The three main nutrients that are critical for optimal plant growth are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, along with magnesium, sulphur and calcium, as well as several micronutrients.

It is important to acknowledge that a deficiency in one or more of these nutrients can result in a lower yield of less nutritious plants, or even total crop failure. It is also crucial to apply pest and disease control to promote superior quality produce that encourages the best market price.

How the lockdown affected cabbage production

Vegetables belonging to the Brassica genus, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, are high-value crops. Conducting soil analysis is a critical step to identify the correct fertiliser requirements to redress nutrient deficiencies and prevent them from developing later.

For example, one producer in the Mangaung area was unable to obtain fertiliser to apply to their cabbage plantation. Planting of seedlings occurred in late March 2020 when rains were above average. However, five months later, the cabbage looked stunted and purple/red in colour, as shown in Figure 2.

Another cabbage producer experienced nitrogen deficiency, as indicated in Figure 3. Promisingly, Figure 4 shows better-quality cabbage than Figure 2 and 3, but insect damage and aphid manifestation were observed in the field.

These three experiences illustrate the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and how some producers were economically affected. The first cabbage producer (Figure 2) had projected a profit of approximately R250 000 per hectare but experienced severe losses. The second producer (Figure 3) had projected a profit of approximately R43 000 but only received a turnover of R18 000 per quarter of a hectare.

Effect of planting date on the maize crop

Figure 4: A Cabbage plant showing insect damage as insecticide application was not conducted timeously.

Other experiences are drawn from maize producers. For example, some producers engaged in maize shelling, drying and storage during the lockdown period.

Shelling was done manually by rubbing cobs against one another or using cylindrical iron tubes. Once maize is shelled, the grains are sorted through a winnowing process that separates the grain, stalk and husk mixture.

Maize was dried in the sun for at least three to five days. Producers cracked the kernels between their teeth to determine the maize’s moisture content.

The maize crops were planted on different planting dates, with some planted from mid- to late December 2019, while other producers decided to plant early to mid-January 2020 since the season was characterised by above-average rains. Unfortunately, the late-planted crops suffered early frost damage and failed to reach the maturity stage, thus leading to poor yields.

Need for agrometeorological information

Based on the experiences mentioned above, it is evident that the enhancement of weather forecasts and climate predictions is a necessity. In addition, the provision of advisory services at national, provincial or municipal level to local producers and other end-users can potentially influence informed decision-making. This starts by promoting the value of agricultural research focusing on crop production and animal husbandry.

Several factors should be considered during the crop production decision-making process. These factors include application of weather forecasting or climate prediction, cultivation of suitable crops, proper cultivar selection, soil management practices, soil moisture conservation techniques and disease or pest management practices.

Factors to consider in respect of animal husbandry include breed, productive capacity of livestock, heat-tolerant breeds, livestock adaptability, species combination and husbandry practices. Adaptive measures rely mainly on the effect of early adaptation based on the weather forecast or climate prediction such as breeding, morphological, and behavioural adaptation.

Moreover, grazing and nutrition management plays a critical role in meeting the nutritional requirements of livestock as per physiological state and production level.

Provision of agrometeorological information

It is evident that the provision of agrometeorological knowledge and services to producers and other end-users has not been fully functional during the COVID-19 lockdown. This is an unfortunate scenario since it leads to a lack of knowledge needed to make important decisions, which in turn results in poor operational decision-making that can have severe economic and socio-economic consequences.

However, the Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) Soil, Climate and Water business unit continues to provide services such as climate data and laboratory analyses. It is recommended for such knowledge providers to engage with local agricultural advisors and producers on a continuous basis. The lockdown restrictions have exposed existing gaps and lack of knowledge transfer among researchers, extension advisors and producers.

Henceforth, the application of technology and knowledge in agriculture is interlinked with the availability, lead time, accuracy and time scale of weather forecasts. The main temporal scales of weather forecasts are the ‘nowcast’ (one to six hours), short-range (one to three days), medium-range (four to ten days), long-range (more than ten days) and extended range (between ten days and one month).

Producers can use this information to make decisions. Therefore, it is recommended that agrometeorological knowledge and its application should be well packaged and disseminated to extension services and community-based farming groups.
Dr Gugu Zuma-Netshiukhwi, ARC Soil, Climate and Water

For more information, send an email to
Dr Gugu Zuma-Netshiukhwi at ZumaNetshiukhwiG@arc.agric.za.