South African farmer Chris Schoonwinkel is taking a gamble: two months late, he is planting maize in a pair of his fields, pinning his hopes on a mid-summer rain.
“We had literally no rain in November and nothing in December. But we got an inch two nights back so I have to go for it,” he told Reuters on Wednesday as he stood in one of his fields in the western part of South Africa’s maize belt.
For Schoonwinkel and other farmers, these mid-summer rains may be too little, too late as the South African countryside bakes under the worst drought in over a century. Last year was the driest on record.
Driving through the western maize belt revealed a parched red landscape that would normally be green with maize stalks or grazing grass at this time of the year.
One the 40 km (25 mile) drive between the maize belt towns of Viljoenskroon and Bothaville, only a handful of fields had been planted. The stalks were only a few inches (cm) tall at a time when they should be at least knee-high.
Further west, the usually lush landscape became more arid with huge fields unplanted.
Africa’s most advanced economy, usually a maize exporter, may need to import 5 million tonnes this year, roughly half its requirements, the country’s largest producer group said last week.
Futures prices for white maize, the staple source of calories for South Africa’s low-income households, doubled last year and touched record highs in recent days, threatening to push inflation higher.
The March contract for yellow maize, used for livestock, rose over 2 percent on Thursday to an historic peak of 3,785 rand ($230) a tonne.
Maize farmers in these parts usually aim to have their seed in the ground in November. Planting two months behind schedule raises the risk profile dramatically for a crop that should take a little over four months to mature.
If there are no follow-up rains soon, the seeds will not germinate, or the sprouts will wither and die, with no time for a second try — which would be a prohibitively expensive option anyway, given seed and fertiliser costs.
If the crop does mature, it could be damaged by frost.
Where Schoonwinkel farms is one of the best growing maize areas in South Africa, with a rich soil and water table that produces high yields.
But he will only plant the two fields that got rain, about 230 hectares, less than 20 percent of the area he typically devotes to maize.
Petrus Roux, who farms a bit further to the west, told Reuters he planned to plant around 800 hectares this week and hoped to do more, depending on the rains.
“We go by faith,” he stoically said over the din of a high-powered tractor.