Is it time for Zimbabwe to give up trying to grow wheat?

Jun 15, 2011

As Zimbabwe's wheat production continues to decline precipitously each year, the viability of growing this crop at all versus importing it will have to be assessed.

Wheat was always an unlikely crop to grow in Zimbabwe anyway. But the country's brief but intense winter gave a window of opportunity for this temperate-climate crop that the country's large-scale commercial farmers were able to successfully exploit.

With the fall of the large-scale farming sector, wheat farming has also declined sharply. Requiring expensive irrigation infrastructure and capital accessible to only well-established large-scale farmers, it is hardly surprising that wheat production has fallen with the number of such large-scale farmers.  

Zimbabwe may be experiencing a slow recovery in parts of its agriculture, but it is mainly in those parts that can be done during the hot-season rains by small-scale farmers, which is why crops like tobacco and maize are experiencing an upturn.

Specialist sectors like wheat and horticulture that require much more specialised and expensive infrastructure have continued to decline.

Mid-June is well into Zimbabwe's cold season and is the time when the wheat crop should be well-germinated and in the early stages of growth. But as The Herald reports:

...less than 5 000 hectares have been put under the crop so far. This is less than 10 percent of the targeted 60 000 hecta-res for the 2011 winter wheat cropping season.

The wheat-planting deadline is May 15 and according to agronomists, a farmer loses 50 kilogrammes of wheat per hectare for every day delayed in planting.

Wheat production has been on the downfall for many years and each year the situation worsens. In the 1990s wheat production suffered as a result of drought and shortage of irrigation water.

In 1996, however, wheat production stood at 280 000 tonnes. Nowadays farmers are having problems irrigating their crop due to intermittent power cuts. Despite the assurances from Zesa Holdings for minimum interruption supply of electricity, farmers continued to experience power cuts, making it difficult for them to complete their irrigation cycles. Mr Mukwende said Zesa promises were empty and the situation worsens during the planting period.

The mix of problems faced by wheat farmers are particularly difficult to overcome, compared to crops like maize and tobacco. The costs of wheat farmer are higher, the growing window much tighter, the infrastructure required much more involved.

It appears to be happening by default that Zimbabwe will soon not have any wheat farming to speak of. This is a shame obviously, as bread has become as much of a food staple as maize. But as long as national problems like power cuts on the current scale remain, it might well be best to just accept that viably growing wheat in Zimbabwe is becoming very unlikely, and that resources and energy should be expended on sectors at which the country has a fighting chance of success.       


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