Early winter rains have brought relief to many farmers in the drought-stricken Western Cape – but there are some areas where farmers are still in dire straits.
Carl Opperman, CEO of Agri Wes-Cape, said that after three years of drought, some farmers in the Swartland and Overberg regions, the grain baskets of the Western Cape where winter wheat is grown, had resorted to planting this year‘s crop “in the dust” as the soil in early April was so dry.
“The rains since then have been like oxygen pipes, it‘s given us a breather. It‘s good for those guys that have planted already. About 10% have not planted. But what will be crucial for the grain farmers is the follow-up rains in the rest of the winter. And that we can‘t predict,” Opperman said on Friday.
The April and May rains, although below average, have been enough to germinate the wheat seeds.
Morreesburg in central Swartland had a total of 41mm of rain in May, below the long-term average of 53mm.
In the Overberg region, Caledon got 18mm in May, below the long-term average of 34mm, and the Bredasdorp area had 15mm, below the long-term average of 29mm.
Grain farmers would now need rain every month throughout the growing season until at least September, Opperman said.
He said, while the rain had been welcome, what would be crucial to get agriculture in the province out of a state of crisis would be the extent to which the storage dams filled up this winter. While the wheat-growing areas were “dryland” farms that relied on rainfall only, much of other agriculture in the province, particularly fruit and wine, relied on irrigation.
Because of the three-year drought, the Department of Water Affairs had cut the amount of irrigation water to farmers in the province by 60% from last year.
“The dams‘ storage capacity has to be at 85% to get this curtailment to be lifted,” Opperman said.
On Thursday the total dam storage capacity for the Cape supply system was 25.1%. This was an increase from 21.1% last week.
The average level for dams across the Western Cape this week was 19%, up from 16.6% the previous week. This week last year, it was 18%.
“The rainfall has been very patchy, with some areas getting high readings and others not. I heard one measurement from near Villiersdorp got 110mm from 23:00 on Thursday to 06:00 on Friday, which is good as it is near the Theewaterskloof dam catchment,” Opperman said.
The SA Weather Service recorded 50.8mm in Villiersdorp from 08:00 on Thursday to 08:00 on Friday.
While Kirstenbosch received 72.4mm in the same period, Saldanha and Moorreesburg got 19mm and Bredasdorp just 7.6mm.
Johan Lusse from Overberg Agri said although the rainfall was less than the long-term average for the region, it had been good for pastures and for crops.
“Most of the farmers here planted in dry soil in April, but later got rain in April and in May. We are currently okay, but obviously we would like more. There is not much pasture for the sheep, so they have to feed the stock, and the costs of feed are quite high. Luckily the mutton and wool prices are good,” Lusse said.
The Overberg area near the mountains had got better rainfall, with 40mm in Grabouw.
One area that has been hard hit by drought is the northern region of the Swartland known as the Rooi Karoo, from Piketberg north to Eendekuil. Many of the farmers here had zero crops to harvest in 2017.
Rooi Karoo farmer Piet Eksteen was one of them.
“I planted last year but harvested nothing. The area looks like a desert. That was R1.5m of input costs down the drain. For three years now, we‘ve had this drought. How long can a person go on like this? Luckily, I have also got sheep,” Eksteen said.
He said a neighbouring farmer had sold his farm as he no longer had the money to keep going.
However, Eksteen said he had 12mm of rain on Thursday, which brought the total for May to 27mm.
“So, it is starting to look good, but it must keep coming through the growing season till the end of September or we are in trouble.”
Lombard van Jaarsveld, the agricultural advisor of Overberg Agri for the Swartland region, said last year had been one of the driest years with the lowest rainfall in the Swartland‘s history.
“The rainfall in 2015, 2016 and 2017 was very bad in the Rooi Karoo, well below the long-term average, while in the rest of the Swartland it was about 50% below the long-term average,” Van Jaarsveld said.
The recent good rains of the last two weeks were favourable for the crops to germinate, but the farmers needed normal rainfall for the rest of the season to get good yields.
“A big part of the economy in rural areas is dependent on crop and animal production, which is solely dependent on rainfall,” Van Jaarsveld said.
Although the deciduous fruit and wine grapes finished harvesting in late summer, much of the province‘s citrus fruit still has to be harvested. The citrus industry relies heavily on irrigation.
George Hall, director of the Boland area of the Citrus Growers‘ Association of SA, said: “What we really need is for the Brandvlei dam to fill because that is where we get the irrigation. It is currently at about 10% so we need a solid winter rainfall,” Hall said.
“The recent rains have given the guys a bit of breathing space, but the drought has definitely affected fruit size, with smaller fruit. This is more of a challenge to market, and gets lower prices overseas,” Hall said.
He added that, while it might rain a lot in Cape Town during one cold front, the areas beyond the Du Toits Kloof mountains did not get the same amount of rain.
Some farmers had had to pull up some of their citrus orchards because of the drought, but luckily there were new entrants who had planted more, and young trees used less water.
“We need two solid wet winters to get out of the drought. If we have another dry winter this year, next year will be dire for agriculture in the Western Cape.”
In the Karoo, the veld is so dry that it provides little grazing for sheep, and farmers have resorted to selling some of their flocks or sending them to the abattoirs to reduce the cost of feeding them.
The drought has also hit wild animals in the Karoo, and hungry baboons have taken newborn lambs to eat.
Déan Gous, manager of Agri Central-Karoo, said the summer rains had come very late to the Karoo and had been far below average. This had meant the veld was poor and farmers had to feed their sheep. They were also getting aid from the Western Cape government to buy feed.
“Two months ago, we had a workshop with Elsenburg and we were told that later we may be forced to reduce our flocks by a third,” Gous said.
Groundwater levels had dropped after three dry years, which also affected the veld.
“The birthrate of the sheep is also affected. The ewes normally lamb in October and November, but now they are a couple of months late. The baboons have become a big problem. There is not enough for them to eat in the veld and they have been taking lambs. They are also pulling up water pipes and breaking them to get at the water and then the water runs away,” Gous said.