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  • Africa realised revenue of 127 million euros along the agriculture value chain last year, despite the availability of a market valued at 2.3 billion euro, the Digitisation of African Agriculture Report (2018-2019) has said.

  • As South Africa establishes itself ever more securely in the modern world, so South African farmers must adapt to a set of new challenges. 

  • “Regenerative Agriculture” is a new buzz phrase—but those treating it as just another passing trend are seriously miscalculating. It’s not a marketing term—it’s a movement, and experts stress that it’s one we all need to get behind.

  • Iowa State University researchers are part of a team that designed a new vision for animal genomics research into the next decade.

  • This is not a good year for South Africa’s agricultural sector.

  • As I sit here and ponder what are all the great things that are being created for the agriculture industry I also have to take pause to push myself down into reality so that I don’t dig myself down into a rabbit whole.

  • Arable farming systems across South Africa are going through a change. Forced by a variable climate and financial pressure, regenerative farming models are increasingly being implemented on cropping, dairy and beef operations as a result. Ethical motivations and issues of family succession are also reasons for adopting the principles of Regenerative Agriculture (RA).

    Recent research that I conducted in Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Free State in South Africa explored the RA concept and investigated how widely it is being applied and why. The initial line of questioning posed to 59 farmers across this part of South Africa focused on weather data, its utility and how farmers are handling the climate-associated challenges. For these farmers, climate change is their primary concern, over and above political and economic issues. Of the 59 farmers who participated in the study, 42 were employing the principles of RA, to some extent, to mitigate the effects of variable and extreme weather. Farm sizes ranged from 500 to 25,000 acres and included combinations of dairy, ranching and cropping operations, with game, fruit, forestry and vegetable production often practised on diversified farms.

    Across this region of South Africa climate patterns are changing. Rainfall is more intense and isolated with dry spells occurring more and more regularly. The number of days with temperature highs of over 30 degrees centigrade is rising, and the winter frosts which control ticks and the diseases they carry are less regular. Unreliable rainfall is, however, the chief challenge. One farmer stated that in the 2016/2017 season, he received a third of his annual rainfall in less that 48 hours. This has severe consequences for arable farms which need to maximise the capture and storage of rainfall as it arrives.

    As a result of changing weather patterns, capturing rainfall where it lands and retaining it in the soil as green water has become of paramount importance to both cropping and ranching systems. The primary determinants of rainfall infiltration rates are land cover and soil health, and this is why farmers are turning to the regenerative model. RA preaches almost constant diverse vegetative cover on the surface which slows runoff and encourages infiltration, while healthy, living and structurally intact soils have a greater capacity to hold moisture in the root zone. Rebuilding the structure of soils that had been routinely pulverised by heavy tillage for decades, became the first step taken by farmers experimenting with the RA concept. A zero-till approach and the use of multi-species cover crops are now seen by farmers as critical in efforts to combat a variable climate; however, economic forces have driven the regenerative agenda further.

    Since 1994 agricultural subsidies have been steadily withdrawn in South Africa to a point where farmers currently receive almost no government assistance whatsoever. While this has led to a decline in the total number of farmers, productivity and efficiency have increased markedly. In essence, it has been a case of survival of the fittest with the most capable farmers, the majority of which still run family farms, buying out those around them who failed to adapt to declining state support. At present, financial pressure is higher than ever with the rising costs of agricultural inputs and depressed global food prices. Regenerative agriculture has helped farmers reduce production costs.

    With less or no soil disturbance, diesel bills are being slashed as life returns to the soil. At the time of interview, one farmer was selling off his 400+KW tractors in favour of machines half as powerful. “To work my soil, my tractors used to work in first gear, and I had to use a pick to break the surface. Now they fly along and I can use my hand to dig out clods of living soil.” The integration of livestock into cropping regimes, often using a mob grazing model, along with diverse covers and near permanent soil cover is re-injecting organic matter into the soil and optimising the liquid carbon pathways that feed the microbial communities helping make nutrients available to the plant. This can result in a declining need for synthetic fertilisers, greater moisture availability and critically, substantial financial savings.

    While min-till has been the defining characteristic of the Conservation Agriculture (CA) paradigm for decades, combining it with year-round diverse ground cover and livestock is a relatively new phenomenon in this part of the world. Gabe Brown’s operations in Bismarck, North Dakota were often cited as the inspiration for this trend in South Africa. It appears that education about the RA model has not come down through formal channels. Experience and ideas have instead been circulated informally through farming communities by word of mouth. An extraordinary characteristic of farmers in these parts of South Africa is their willingness to share knowledge and experience. As little formal research is investigating the topic, experimentation and the sharing of results is key.

    The experimentation aspect is well worth dwelling on. Each farmer included in the study has had to experiment with the principles of the concept in his or her own physical context. Geographies were highly variable in the study area and so tailoring the adoption of RA to specific contexts and allowing time and space for experimentation is vital. For example, at one point a farmer was using a 31 plant species mix in his multi- species dairy pasture, but through experimentation and careful monitoring, he found an optimal mix of 14 species for his lands. For cropping systems, it was repeatedly stated that it took four to ten years for yields to recover to pre no-till levels as life and structure in the soil was regenerated. The variation in experience required farmers to adopt different implementation strategies, with some slowly changing practice one field per year while others opted a wholesale change in their farming systems far more rapidly.

    The final point to make concerning RA adoption in South Africa is to do with succession and ethics. A number of those interviewed stated that they wanted to hand down viable farms to their children and the next generation. There is a general consensus that conventional agricultural systems are detrimental to environmental functioning and are not compatible with sustainable soil management and biodiversity. Fortunately, RA does appear to be an alternative that could mitigate the climatic and financial pressures being applied to farmers while also meeting environmental agendas.

    One farmer commented, “My greatest satisfaction has come from wildlife returning to the farm en masse, from dung beetles to sparrow hawks. This has only happened by seeing the farm as part of a wider agro-ecosystem.”

    There are challenges to adopting this form of farming. Farmer experience indicates that as regenerative agriculture is adopted, yields will initially decline and then recover to, or exceed, previous levels over a four- to ten-year period as the soil recovers. This initial drop in production is a cost that needs to be absorbed. A greater spraying requirement, to terminate cover crops and control weeds, is a further obstacle that has yet to be fully negotiated. Rolling, crimping and mowing are developing alternatives to spraying. However, it is abundantly clear that farming systems respond to these challenges and that, as custodians of the vast majority of our landscapes, farmers can maintain livelihoods while positively interacting with the ecosystems that supply the goods and services which agricultural systems ultimately rely on.

  • Over the past few weeks, we noted that South African farmers have had one of the toughest years because of the combined effects of drought and animal disease that affected production and trade. But this is only one side of the story. Another side of the story relates to agricultural input costs, which positively, have been relatively contained compared to this time last year.

  • The breakneckgrowth of food demand due to the growing population worldwide is driving the demand for smart agriculture.

  • A comment I hear regularly from my customers across the world is: “My data is in the wrong place, I can’t make any sense of it, help, what do I do next?” Another is: “I only start my computer up a couple of times a year and I’ve forgotten how to work the software.”

  • Although the past few months have been a struggle to secure grain supplies for Southern and East Africa, other parts of the world are in better shape and could help offset the shortfall.

  • This week, we will commemorate World Food Day on Wednesday, 16 October 2019. This event also presents an opportunity to review South Africa’s standing in the food security ladder. 

    Food security is achieved when three objectives are met: when food is available, accessible in the right quantities and at the appropriate nutritional levels for all citizens at all times. In 2018, South Africa was ranked 45th most food-secure country out of 133 countries measured in The Economist Global Food Security Index. This was relatively good, compared to other BRICS countries. For example, although South Africa’s average income was 25 spots behind Russia, 23 behind China and 19 behind Brazil, the county’s food security status was a relatively closer match-up, ranking just six spots behind Brazil, three spots behind Russia and one spot ahead of China (see Table 1 in the attached file).

    What is worth reiterating is the fact that despite South Africa’s relatively lower average income, the country still manages to punch above its weight in terms of food security. This is a testament to the country’s competitive agricultural sector, and its ability to supply food at a relatively low cost.

    Although the Food Security Index indicates South Africa is food-secure, there are pockets of food insecurity within the country when you consider a household-level perspective. This speaks to the general inequality in the country, where some households are food secure, and a sizable portion of other low-income households are not, primarily due to affordability. This scenario is more prevalent in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

    While there are a number of interventions that can assist in supporting households’ access to nutritious food, one form of intervention that can boost rural households’ income is through job creation in the agricultural sector. There is anecdotal evidence that in areas where government and private sector have collaborated in agricultural development, some level of success in terms of job creation could be achieved.

    With agriculture having gained prominence as one of the sectors that could bring about rural economic development and job creation in South Africa, the government’s approach to realising this vision should be regionally focused. Meaning, the aforementioned provinces should be the key priority in resource allocation, as the frontiers of agricultural expansion. Such an approach not only makes sense in terms of reducing poverty but also in exploiting the potential of underutilised land. Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape arguably have about 1.6 million to 1.8 million hectares of underutilised land which can be sustainably farmed for increased food security over the long term. This is according to a 2015 study by McKinsey Global Institute.

    Admittedly, the current land governance system -- communal land -- has been cited as one of the hindrances in agricultural development in these provinces, as it limits investment. But, solving such matters can take a long time and land reform policy is still being debated across the country.

    The near-term practical approach that can make a difference is structuring an innovative agricultural finance instrument -- such as blended-finance -- which pulls in the capital and human capital from both private and public sectors. In parts of the Eastern Cape, agribusinesses such as The Co-op, are currently engaged in such arrangements with the provincial government and in areas where projects have been implemented there has been some level of success. These are some of the approaches that are needed for boosting households’ income so they can have access to nutritious foods in the near term, while broad development policies are yet to be operationalised or implemented.

    Large global grains supplies

    The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reaffirmed the view that the world has relatively large grains supplies this year. In its October 2019 update, the agency maintained its 2019/20 global wheat production estimate at 765 million tonnes, which is 5% higher than the previous season. As a consequence of this, the stocks could increase by 4% y/y to 287 million tonnes. This will essentially keep global wheat prices are relatively lower levels, which is beneficial for consumers in importing countries such as South Africa.

    Moreover, the USDA left its 2019/20 global maize production estimate roughly unchanged from September 2019, at 1.1 billion tonnes. Admittedly, this is 2% less than the previous season because of a poor harvest in parts of the US and Argentina amongst other countries, but these are still comfortable levels in covering the world’s maize needs. The reduction in production, while consumption is relatively strong, means that the stocks could fall by 7% y/y in 2019/20 season.

    Unlike the aforementioned grains, the 2019/20 global soybean production was revised down by 1% from levels seen in September 2019 to 324 million tonnes. This was largely on the back of anticipated poor yields in the US and Paraguay. The current estimate is now 6% less compared to 2018/19 production season. The poor harvest in the US because of wet weather conditions at the start of the season is central to this anticipated reduction in global soybean harvest.

    Another important factor that we continue to monitor in the soybeans space is its consumption, specifically because of fears that African swine fever could have a negative impact. So far, however, global soybean demand remains solid. The consumption trend and a decline in production could be supportive of soybeans and its by-products prices in the near term. Similar to wheat, South Africa is a net importer of soybeans and a notable importer of soybean oilcake (see Figure 1 in the attached file), then an uptick in global prices could influence the domestic market and business.

    Harvest activity picking up momentum in parts of the Western Cape winter crop regions Not much has changed in the Western Cape weather conditions since our previous note. But rainfall at this point would rather cause damage in some winter crop growing areas rather than help boost yields as we would have liked to see in the past couple of weeks. Farmers in parts of the Southern Cape and Overberg are in full swing with canola harvesting and at initial stages of wheat and barley harvesting. This means drier weather conditions will be ideal for the next couple of weeks, which is precisely what the forecasts for the next two weeks show – see Figure 2 in the attached file.

    With that said, the drier weather conditions and heat experienced over the past couple of weeks within the Western Cape has caused yield losses. As previously highlighted, the Western Cape is a major producer of winter crops, accounting for 61% of area plantings in winter wheat and nearly all canola, hence we placed greater emphasis on crop conditions within this province.

    Other major winter crop producing provinces -- Northern Cape, Free State and Limpopo, amongst others -- are mainly under irrigation and can, therefore, withstand harsh conditions as dams are at levels over 50% on average as of 07 October 2019. Farmers’ reports out of the Free State suggest that the wheat crop in the province generally appear very good. The same is true for the Northern Cape.

    South Africa’s Crop Estimates Committee (CEC) currently forecasts the 2019/20 wheat, barley and canola production at 1.81 million tonnes, 389 260 tonnes and 88 800 tonnes, which is 3%, 8% and 15% down from the previous season.

    Looking ahead, we see a risk that the CEC might revise down further its winter crop production estimates when the next update comes out on 24 October 2019 given that weather conditions have been harsh in parts of the Western Cape, and in turn, resulted into yield losses.

    From a data front

    The data calendar is quite light this week. On Monday, the US Department of Agriculture will release its weekly update of the US crop conditions data. This will give us a sense of the US crop-growing conditions, and thereafter the potential size of the harvest.

    On Wednesday, SAGIS will release the grain producer deliveries data for the week of 11 October 2019. This covers both summer and winter crops. In the coming weeks, the deliveries data will give us a sense of the pace of the winter crops harvest activity.

    On Thursday, we will get the weekly grain trade data (wheat and maize) for the week of 11 October 2019. In brief, maize exports for the 2019/20 marketing year have thus far amounted to 495 645 tonnes. Looking ahead, we expect South Africa to remain a net exporter of maize this marketing year, although the volume will most likely fall by half from 2018/19 to about 1.1 million tonnes. At the same time, we expect maize imports of about 450 000 tonnes, all yellow maize, mainly for the coastal provinces of the country. This is up from an estimated 171 500 tonnes in the 2018/19 marketing year. The country has thus far imported 251 708 tonnes of yellow maize, all from Argentina.

    In terms of wheat, South Africa remained a net importer in the 2018/19 marketing year, although the recovery in the country’s domestic wheat production led to a decline in the volume of imports. South Africa’s 2018/19 wheat imports fell by 36% from the previous season to about 1.4 million tonnes. Looking ahead, South Africa’s 2019/20 wheat imports could increase to 1.6 million tonnes because of expected lower harvest on the back of unfavourable weather conditions in the Western Cape. The first import consignment of the 2019/20 marketing year was 32 841 tonnes, from Germany, Russia and Poland. This week we will receive data for activity in the week of 11 October 2019, which is the second week of this marketing year.

  • The basics of the global food system, which today feeds seven to eight billion people, were developed by the ancient Romans.

  • KPMG’s study of the agricultural sector in South Africa for the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), Research on the Performance of the Agricultural Sector, includes a SWOT analysis of three main products:

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