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Wheat farmers ready to roll, but…

Wheat farming

BRIGHT Bvukumbwe, a wheat farmer in Marondera district, anticipates producing roughly 80 tonnes of wheat this year.

But, Grain Marketing Board (GMB)'s late payments are his biggest source of worry.

“Right now, we have farmers who produced their wheat and delivered it to GMB around the start of November last year, but they haven't yet received payment. Even as we speak, we are at a stage when wheat should be planted,” he told NewsDay Farming.

“In order to be successful as a wheat farmer, you must have your inputs on time, just like any other farming enterprise. Furthermore, you want to be paid quickly after selling your produce so that you may pay off the financiers who would have funded it.

“Without payment, it means you can’t do all those things because you haven't been paid. And if you do get paid in our Zimbabwean dollars, the difficulty will be that its worth has already diminished over time. Wheat prices were quite competitive at the time of introduction. That made a significant impact if you received that money even in RTGS.”

GMB is barely managing to pay farmers, which has led to some farmers giving up growing wheat in favour of other crops like tobacco.

The grain utility paid $268 048 plus US$220 per tonne for premium grade wheat in November last year and $243 680 plus US$200 per tonne for basic wheat. Yet, according to GMB data, only 22% of the delivered wheat had been paid for by the first week of November.

In January 2023, Anxious Masuka, the Agriculture minister, declared that all wheat farmers who delivered their crop to the GMB would be paid “soon,” after $1,7 billion was reportedly given to the grain utility to settle all overdue payments.

But, many of the wheat farmers are yet to receive their cheques.

Zimbabwe produced 380 000 tonnes of wheat in 2022, beating the record set in the 1960s, when commercial wheat production first started. The country needs about 400 000 tonnes of wheat per year to survive without imports.

Zimbabwe has been importing wheat for more than US$140 million annually. Now that Zimbabwe has a larger crop, it will import less. But the country still requires some imports, despite the government's claims that the country will stop importing wheat.

According to the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe, in order to produce bread of shelf-stable quality, the country’s wheat must be combined with imported varieties, which the country is unable to produce due to unsuitable climatic conditions.

And to grow the wheat suitable to the Zimbabwean climate it is proving to be a mammoth task for A2 farmer such as Bvukumbwe, who faces such challenges as high input costs, rampant veldfires, lack of affordable capital, high labour costs, low mechanisation and incessant power outages.

“In order to meet your energy needs, you would, therefore, naturally spend additional funds on generators. Also, as you are aware, there are other concerns associated with the time of year when fireguards are required. Doing the wheat takes a lot of time,” he said.

“Your profitability and viability will naturally be affected if you don't receive your inputs on time and if you don't get paid the exact amount in a currency that carries your expenses.

Farmers require irrigation water and a steady supply of electricity because the crop is cultivated under irrigation.

Bvukumbwe produced roughly 60 tonnes of wheat on 10 hectares last season.

“This year, if everything goes according to plan, I'm actually expecting about 80 tonnes on 15 hectares,” he said.

The country expects to cultivate an estimated 85 000 hectares this year, with an expected yield of 408 000 tonnes, far exceeding the 375 000 tonnes of the previous year and the minimum 360 000 tonnes required for self-sufficiency.

“I'm not certain that all of the farmers who produced wheat last season will do so again this year since those who haven't been paid have obviously been put off by the system and will undoubtedly invest their money elsewhere.

“I, therefore, have no idea where we stand, how much wheat the nation will receive, or whether this season will be like the last. I am aware that we gave it our all the previous season and broke every record,” he said.

Another farmer from the Midlands province, who asked to remain anonymous, encouraged national power utility Zesa Holdings to keep the lights on.

“Using generator power during power outages for the purpose of irrigation only worsens the situation as the farmer’s costs balloon beyond their expected crop earnings. We hope Zesa will rise to the challenge,” said the farmer.

According to Shadreck Makombe, president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU), one of the biggest issues last season was delayed payment for delivered wheat.

This prevented farmers from having enough money for retooling or inputs, he said.

“In the same vein, we expect GMB and other contractors, since contractors going forward are considered to have an off-taking arrangement as off-takers.

“We expect them to pay on time and the GMB also to do likewise, because otherwise when you talk of farming as a business, the essence is lost when farmers cannot save money to use for whatever they would want to use it for,” he said.

High input costs, particularly for fertilisers and chemicals, are another barrier to farming, according to Makombe. He said because the prices were so high, farmers were losing out on the earnings they would have normally realised.

“So, we are expecting even the businesspeople to be ethical to just not hike prices willy-nilly but also to consider ethical business principles and practices,” he said.

The ZCFU president indicated that some farmers suffered losses as a result of the destruction of their wheat by the rain.

He advised the farmers to begin planting wheat in April and early May in order to avoid growing it too late, which would result in it being harmed by the early rains and veldfires, and fail to make the grade.

“Meaning it will be a loss to farmers and at the same time veldfires affected quite for a number of farmers. They lost. We are also encouraging the populace to contain fires. Not to just cause these bushfires anyhow because they are a menace to the crops.

“So, given the situation, we also encourage farmers to insure their crops so that at least the insurance can mitigate the losses which may be incurred due to a number of natural disasters or man-made disasters,” he added.

Bvukumbwe believes that the problems faced by farmers may be remedied by quick payment as well as with the aid of banks, if they change reasonable interest rates.

“You must, therefore, be certain that you will make a profit before investing any money. Early planting increases yield, lowers the risk of fires, and increases the chances of harvesting in time before the rains. It also increases yield and lowers risk of fires,” he opined.

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