Twin evils strike Zim cereal crop

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TAURAI MANGUDHLA

On both sides of the 260km HarareMutare highway is a sad picture of wilting maize crop, as the dry spell takes a toll on the farming season and threaten hunger on millions of Zimbabweans.

The usually green landscape of a crop that is almost ready for harvesting half way into February in the Manicaland province’s Headlands and Mashonaland East’s Macheke areas is just a mere wish. Leaf rolling and greying of leaves especially when temperatures are at their highest was apparent.

A visit to Mashonaland Central’s Shamva area told the same story. Signs of moisture stress are clearly visible on the maize plants in the area.

“This place is generally very hot and we have been getting little rain this season. The maize plants are no longer upright, it’s as if they are just going to fall,” farmer Linnet Steven whose small plot is around Pasco area of Shamva.

Closer to Harare, the Domboshawa area is a different story. Leaves have a ragged appearance as a result of a massive fall armyworm attack. It is these twin evils—drought and the fall armyworm—that are threatening Zimbabwe’s food security. Beginning of the farming season, Zimbabwe projected to produce 900 000 tonnes of maize, but the figure was cut in half on the first crop assessment as the ugly effects of drought and pests sets a new reality.

The country requires 1,8 million tonnes annually for its citizens and livestock.

Marvel Farm in Domboshawa is just one example of the devastating effects of the fall armyworm.

Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) crop specialist Karsto Kwazira told Business Times on the sidelines of a tour of 12 ha Marvel Farm on Tuesday that the fall armyworm normally affects maize growing areas in the Mashonaland provinces.

“The armyworm came in 2017 and this is our third season with this pest;we used to have the army worm and now we have this fall armyworm,” Kwazira said. “If not attended to, the fall armyworm can affect the whole crop and there are some farmers who have to plough down the whole field basically getting nothing.”

He said scouting is very important especially during early stages of the pest attack.

Kwazira said poor rains also increase the chances of fall armyworm attacks.“When it is raining the rain itself can be drenching and exposing thepest, when there is rain it’s much better. When the rains are good then there is also plenty of grass and some pests are in the grass but when there is no rain all pests are in the green parts which is the maize,” he said.

While pests are more difficult to predict and control, wilting maize plants could have been avoided through irrigation.

Studies have shown that farmer-led irrigation and commercial irrigation have a potential to improve Zimbabwe’s agriculture after it took a huge knock from the fastratck land reform programme of around 2000.

The biggest loss with the land reform is perhaps its effects on land tenure. Land became unbankable overnight and farmers were unable to borrow. Attempts to sanitize the environment by introducing 99 year leases were futile as banks still insists on tittle.

Statistics obtained from FAO show that nationally, there are around 600 000 ha of potentially irrigable land or 365 000 ha from internal renewable water resources. Research also shows that by the early 2000s only 120 000 ha were irrigated under formal schemes due to droughts and decaying infrastructure, down from a peak of 200 000 ha as irrigation equipment was vandalised and exported to neigbhouring countries.

Agriculture expert Mandivamba Rukuni said irrigation makes a difference even with climate change.

Rukuni however said there is need for small holder based irrigation schemes to get the best results.

“Right now we have 65 70 75 percent of the population in communal lands and the land reform created 300 000 small holder farmers on A1 farms who do not rely benefit from large dams except for fishing,” Rukuni said.

“A2 farmers are also another issue given that most of the resettled farmers on A2 farms have no skills for irrigation or the capital to produce,” he added.

Rukuni said micro irrigation, small wheels and good water harvesting techniques is the way towards food security even in large economies.

“We have surplus labour now so micro irrigation for the 300 000 small farms will take us to a middle income economy and ensure food security,” he added.