/ 9 January 2024

Why I am optimistic about South Africa’s agricultural outlook in 2024

Farming 1146 Dv

One can categorise the start of this year as positive for South Africa’s agriculture. I recently drove across most regions of the country, which was an opportunity to assess agricultural conditions after the first few months of the summer season.

The vegetation was welcoming and green all along the way, having benefited from the early summer favourable rainfall. In areas planted early in the season, the maize fields looked healthy. Other crops were also visibly in good condition.

One would not expect such favourable conditions amid an El Niño season. But the typical dryness of an El Niño may only start to intensify from March. This is mainly the case for the central and eastern regions of South Africa, which could receive above-normal rainfall in the month before that, according to the South African Weather Service. 

Meanwhile, the country’s western regions could experience below-normal rain in the coming months. The soil moisture levels in the west are already low and thus concerning for farmers. Still, the current agricultural conditions are favourable. 

In a few exchanges with farmers, they appreciated the recent rains, although some were excessive. The issue they worry about more these days is extreme heat, which the country’s northern regions are already experiencing. Higher temperatures, when not followed by rain, can damage agriculture.

Still, this is not a significant issue for now, because there are hopes the country could still have a decent season (bearing in mind the risks of harsh production conditions in North West).

When the season started, farmers intended to plant a total area of 4.5 million hectares for that 2023-24 summer grains and oilseed. This is up by 2% year-on-year. Moreover, the view from farm inputs organisations suggests that they also saw reasonably encouraging sales, further supporting the optimistic view about crop planting.

Regarding the livestock industry, green pastures are a welcome development, especially as the feed prices remain relatively high compared with pre-Covid levels. The challenge for livestock farmers is the biosecurity weaknesses that should be resolved to curb the spread of animal diseases in the country and minimise the outbreaks.

We are in for another good agricultural season, especially if January and February present favourable rainfall. The weather service captured the optimism about the country’s central and eastern regions in the 19 December 2023 Seasonal Climate Watch. 

It stated that “… multi-model rainfall forecast indicates mostly below-normal rainfall over most of the country during Jan-Feb-Mar (JFM), Feb-Mar-Apr (FMA) and Mar-Apr-May (MAM) except for the central and eastern coastal areas indicating a higher likelihood of above-normal rainfall”. 

This worries me about the country’s western regions and provides hope for the central and eastern regions.

Wandile Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and author of A Country of Two Agricultures.