/ 20 May 2024

Maize harvest kicks off: South African farmers brace for challenging season

Yellow maize for July delivery fell 0.7% to R2 214 a tonne.
Weather forecasts paint a promising picture of a return of a La Niña in the 2024-25 summer-crop production season.

South African farmers and workers in the maize-growing regions are getting ready for a busy period. The harvest season has just started and should gain momentum in the coming weeks, lasting until July for some areas. 

There has already been good progress in the first two weeks of the new marketing year for the grain, which started at the beginning of May. For example, farmers delivered 1.2 million tonnes of maize to commercial silos in the first two weeks of the month. The overall expected maize crop for the year is 13.3 million tonnes according to data from the South African Grain Information Service’s Crop Estimates Committee. 

The delivery figures should be much higher in the next few weeks, however, with a possible slump in the figures for last week’s harvest activity — the third week of the month — which will be released by the service this week. 

Some farmers might have taken a break last week to attend Nampo, one of the largest agricultural exhibitions in the Southern Hemisphere, held in Bothaville in the Free State.

While we are happy to see these harvest volumes, and hope the expected 13.3 million tonnes overall harvest materialises, we also think of the many farmers who lost much of their crops during the mid-summer drought and won’t have a lot to harvest this time. For them, the hope lies in the upcoming season, which starts in October. 

Fortunately, the weather forecasts paint a promising picture of a return of a La Niña in the 2024-25 summer-crop production season. This would bring much-needed rain and support agricultural production in South Africa and the broader Southern African region.

Still, there will be financial strain in the coming months resulting from the significant crop losses caused by the mid-summer drought. The expected harvest of 13.3 million tonnes of maize is down 19% from the 2022-23 season and we are yet to fully understand the effect on farmers’ finances. 

Still, if it materialises, the expected harvest will be sufficient to meet South Africa’s annual maize consumption of roughly 12 million tonnes, leaving the country with a small export volume. 

Consumers will probably see maize prices remain elevated for some time because of the potentially tight supplies later this year. 

The Southern African regional demand, particularly for white maize, remains a significant upside driver of South African maize prices. Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi have had a poor harvest and will require large maize imports later this year, going into the first quarter of 2025.

If we look beyond maize, we know that South Africa’s 2023-24 summer grains and oilseed harvest is estimated at 16 million tonnes, down 20% from the previous season. As well as maize, this figure comprises sunflower seeds, soybeans, sorghum, groundnuts and dry beans. The harvest of these grains and oilseeds is underway. 

What is clear is that we are closing a difficult season for the South African farming community. 

Farmers planted a slightly bigger area for summer grains and oilseed this season, which shows that the 20% year-on-year decline in the harvest we mention above results from poor yields, not the reduction in area planted.

With relatively warm clear skies and warm weather conditions in the days ahead for much of South Africa, the farming community will be working hard to complete the harvest in areas spared of the mid-summer drought misery.

Wandile Sihlobo is the chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and a senior fellow in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Agricultural Economics. His latest book is A Country of Two Agricultures.