Farmers keep close eye on vagaries of El Niño

Farmers keep close eye on vagaries of El Niño

South Africa’s 2023/24 summer crop production season kicks off soon, and the uncertainty over the intensity of the El Niño weather event, and the higher temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall it could bring, remains a concern.

However, the latest message from the SA Weather Service through its Seasonal Climate Watch of August 28 was encouraging, that “the multimodel rainfall forecast indicates above-normal rainfall for most of the country during midspring (September to November) and late spring (October to December)”.

However, the weather service added that “early summer (November to January) … indicates below-normal rainfall over the central parts of the country and above-normal rainfall for the northeast”.

This means some regions of the country, mainly the central to western parts, may not experience the same start to the season as the eastern areas. Still, the broad sentiment is that showers are likely to support crop germination at the beginning of the 2023/24 production season. This is also an encouraging message for horticulture and livestock, as the rains will help production conditions in these subsectors.

The central message from the weather service report is that there are concerns about potential below-normal rainfall, mainly from the start of 2024, while there should be decent rain showers in most regions in 2023. Aside from planting and germination, the other critical point of crop development is pollination, which requires moisture and typically occurs about February if farmers plant crops from mid-October in the eastern regions and mid-November in the country’s western areas.

Due to improved soil moisture from the last rainy seasons, mainly in east and central SA, the effect of the expected El Niño on agricultural conditions is likely to be limited initially. We remain concerned about the far western regions.

There is anecdotal evidence that soil moisture in these regions is not as conducive as in the other parts because of drier weather conditions towards the end of the 2022/23 production season. The weather service report indicates stronger prospects of rainfall in the coming months in the northern and eastern regions, with less emphasis on the far western areas. The production conditions in these regions require constant monitoring.

The northern hemisphere countries experienced excessive heat during their summer season. We are thus concerned that this could be a reality for SA in the coming season too.

There is no clarity on this issue now, but it too will need constant monitoring. The weather service is unclear on it, saying that “minimum and maximum temperatures are expected to be mostly above-normal countrywide for the forecast period”. The possibility of excessively high temperatures in an environment in which moisture is already constrained would not be ideal for crop production.

On balance the outlook for the coming agricultural season remains positive, with above-average harvests expected for key crops. The upcoming season is likely not to be as harsh as the 2015/16 production season, which is still fresh in farmers” memories.

Agricultural input prices are far better than last season, though not back to pre-Covid-19 levels. For example, SA farmers are likely to plant this year in an environment in which fertiliser prices are on average more than 50% lower than a year ago.

Given that fertiliser accounts for about a third of grain farmers’ input costs, such price declines will have a positive effect on their finances. Fungicide, insecticide and herbicide prices are also down as much as a third compared with a year ago.

As commodity prices have also declined from the levels of a year ago, large profits are not necessarily to be made in crop farming. Still, the input cost environment is more forgiving overall, and there is encouraging enthusiasm in regions that are preparing for the start of the season in about three weeks.

Written for and first appeared on Business Day.

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Farmers in South Africa face power cuts and a weak rand – but a number of factors are working in their favour too

Farmers in South Africa face power cuts and a weak rand – but a number of factors are working in their favour too

Winter is an important season for South African agriculture, with some of its key field crops being produced during the cold months of June, July and August, and maturing after that, with harvesting in December. Preparation of the land for winter crops begins in April, which is also the same time harvesting of the summer crops begins.

Farmers in the Western and Northern Cape, Free State, Limpopo and other winter crop growing regions are making arrangements for growing winter wheat, canola, barley and oats.

All of the country’s wheat production takes place during the winter months, making the winter season an important contributor to the country’s wheat needs. South Africa produces roughly 60% of its wheat requirements and imports the balance. It also produces, on average, about 90% of its barley annual consumption. Domestic production of oats is about 64% of annual consumption. The country is self sufficient in canola production. Barley, oats and canola are all winter crops.

This year, the outlook for winter crops is clouded by a difficult operating environment, especially the areas that are under irrigation.

The two biggest headwinds are power cuts and dollar strength. Nevertheless, there are also positives which should take the pressure off food price rises that have hit consumers hard. These positives include a fall in the cost of inputs, like fertiliser and agrochemicals, as well as good harvests from the summer season just ending.


The main contributing factor is the increase in recurring power cuts which will affect irrigation. South Africa’s agriculture has never faced a period of power cuts as severe as the current ones.

The agricultural sector in general is heavily reliant on sustainable energy. For example, recent work by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) shows that roughly a third of South Africa’s farming income is directly dependent on irrigation. This shows that disruptions in power supply generally puts at risk a substantive share of the South African agricultural fortunes.

Of all South Africa’s field crops, wheat has the largest production – about half – under irrigation. Of the other key field crops, about 15% of soybeans, 20% of maize and 34% of sugar production are under irrigation.

The potential disruption of irrigation would lead to poor yields, and ultimately a poor harvest. Such an eventuality would lead to an increase in wheat imports.

Industry role-players and the government are alert to the problem and are monitoring the impact closely through a ministerial task team. In addition, Eskom, the power monopoly, along with the government, are exploring possibilities of reducing power cuts which are expected to spike during the winter when demand usually rises.

The second headwind is that South African farmers have not benefited fully from the decline over the past year in the US dollar prices of some of their key inputs such as agrochemicals. This is because of the weakening of the South African rand against the dollar, shaving off some of the benefits of the price decline in US dollar terms.

Thirdly, farmers are experiencing lower commodity prices compared with last year. But a drop in input prices is providing a necessary financial cushion.

There are positives

On the plus side, the area plantings for all of South Africa’s major crops are expected to be above the five-year average area. This is according to Crop Estimates Committee, a government and industry body that monitors crop production.

Secondly, input prices have come off from last year’s highs. For example, in February 2023, essential agrochemicals such as glyphosate, acetochlor, and atrazine were down in rand terms by 32%, 18%, and 2%, respectively compared to February 2022. These price declines have continued through to March 2023.

These declines would have been higher had the South African Rand not weakened against the US dollar over the same period. That’s because in US dollar terms, the prices of the very same agrochemicals are down by 30% from February 2022. Prices of insecticides and fungicides have also declined notably from last year’s levels.

Also worth noting is that in February 2023, essential fertilisers such as ammonia, urea, di-ammonium phosphate and potassium chloride were down 6%, 36%, 28% and 14% in rand terms, respectively. Again, in US dollar terms, the price decline was more notable, which speaks to the impact of the relatively weaker South African rand on imported products.

These price changes in inputs are vital as they impact vast components of the grain input costs. For example, fertiliser accounts for a third of grain farmers’ input costs, while other agrochemicals account for roughly 13%.

A third positive factor is that the weather conditions for the winter crops also remain positive. In its Seasonal Climate Watch update published on 03 April 2023, the South African Weather Service noted that the winter crop growing regions of South Africa will receive rains.

A fourth positive factor is that the summer crops, which are nearing the harvest process, are in reasonably good condition. I generally expect an ample harvest in most summer crops, which is aligned with the view of the Crop Estimates Committee.


From a consumer perspective, developments are broadly positive and bode well for some moderation in consumer food price inflation in the second half of the year, when the decline in commodity prices could begin to filter into the retail prices.

The one major risk is electricity stability. This is as much a risk for farmers as it is for consumers.

However, I am hopeful that the government’s interventions, such as the load curtailment and diesel rebate, to limit the damage of the electricity crisis to food production will help.

If the government’s proposed interventions help during irrigation periods – afternoons and evenings – South Africans can expect a favourable winter season. The reduction in power cuts will also be particularly beneficial for food processors.

Written for and first appeared in The Conversation.

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What do global wheat production dynamics mean for South Africa?

What do global wheat production dynamics mean for South Africa?

When we look at South Africa’s agricultural and food import data for the past five years, wheat ranks as the second most valuable product after rice. It accounted for 6% (or US$417 million) of the annual average agricultural imports of US$6,6 billion during this period.

This is equivalent to approximately 1,5 million tonnes in volume terms over this five-year period, which is about half of South Africa’s annual average wheat consumption needs. This time around, with the Russia-Ukraine war and drought in parts of the northern hemisphere still a major concern, there is some worry about the general global wheat supplies and South Africa’s domestic wheat production prospects.

From a global perspective, recent data from the International Grains Council (IGC) provides some comfort. The IGC forecasts production at 792 million tonnes for the 2022/23 season, which would be up 1% year-on-year (y/y) if achieved.

With industrial use of wheat expected to slow this year, while feed and food use might increase marginally, the global stocks are projected at 286 million tonnes. This is up 2% y/y and suggests that prices could remain at current levels and sideways from now on.

Currently, wheat prices globally are at levels below US$450 per tonne, which is a far better place than months just after Russia invaded Ukraine when prices surged to levels over US$500 per tonne between April and June.

The improvement in global wheat production is mainly supported by the expected large harvests in Russia (up 25 y/y), the US (up 8% y/y), Canada (up 56% y/y), Kazakhstan (up 16% y/y), China (up 1% y/y), Turkey (up 5% y/y) and the UK (up 4% y/y).

In the case of Russia, there remains uncertainty about whether the country will be able to efficiently export wheat to key consuming regions in the climate of the ongoing war and the country’s aggression against Ukraine and the global community. Nevertheless, the expected improvement in the harvest in the countries above has helped to overshadow the decline in the harvest in the EU, Argentina, Australia, Ukraine, and India.

With everything considered, these global production estimates suggest that South Africa will be in a better place to procure the required imports in the 2022/23 marketing year, which started this month. South Africa’s wheat imports for this new marketing year are forecast at 1,5 million tonnes, roughly unchanged from the previous year.

This import forecast is underpinned by the belief that South Africa could have another decent wheat harvest in the 2022/23 season. Farmers lifted the area plantings to 566 800 hectares, from 523 500 hectares in the previous year. This was on the back of attractive prices following a surge in wheat prices after Russia invaded Ukraine, as well as good soil moisture in various wheat-growing regions of the country.

As such, current production estimates are also comforting, pointing to a harvest of 2,2 million tonnes. Again, this is roughly the same as the 2021/22 season, which was the largest harvest in two decades. These figures show that most of South Africa’s wheat needs will be produced domestically this year. In that order, the Western Cape, Free State, Northern Cape and Limpopo are the largest producing provinces of this season’s crop. Outside the Western Cape, the crop in other provinces will benefit from irrigation.

Importantly, we still see a possible upward revision of the domestic wheat harvest if the Western Cape, which produces nearly half of the domestic wheat, receives good rains over the coming weeks and if the weather conditions remain favourable in other producing provinces.

Overall, the global wheat supplies are in a better position than many had feared, especially when there were prospects of fertilizer shortages in some regions. The world has managed to adjust, and countries with capacities have improved domestic production to stabilize global supplies. Still, Russia remains a significant producer, making up 12% of the expected 792 million tonnes of the global harvest. This means the events in the Black Sea will continue to matter for the global wheat market and price dynamics.

Importantly, we expect South Africa to remain comfortable regarding wheat supplies and import activity during this new 2022/23 marketing year which ends in September 2023. As we expect, the import mentioned above estimate of 1,5 million tonnes could be revised if production increases, benefiting from good weather in the coming weeks.

The sideways price movements we expect in the global environment could also be a reality here in South Africa. The domestic wheat price ended September 2022 at R7 120 per tonne. This is significantly lower than the levels over R8 000 per tonne we saw a few months ago. Still, the current spot price of around R7 120 per tonne is 21% up from the end of September 2021.

This means that wheat prices are likely to stabilize at relatively higher levels than last year, which helps the farmers that procured inputs at higher levels. But the opposite is true for the consumer, whose position is also worsened by higher fuel prices and rising interest rates.

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Is organized agriculture at fault for low transformation levels in SA agriculture?

Is organized agriculture at fault for low transformation levels in SA agriculture?

The agricultural economist, Dr Sifiso Ntombela, published an intriguing article this past weekend in News24. He argues, rightly, that the structure of the South African agricultural economy today was defined by various policy changes in the three years after the dawn of democracy.

Dr Ntombela notes, “It was during this period that the then newly elected democratic government decided to remove state subsidies for farmers and also stopped the regulation of food prices.” The fundamental policy change he refers to here is the deregulation of the agricultural markets, which removed government price controls of agricultural commodities and led to abolishing various commodity boards such as maize, wheat, and meat boards. This process occurred as the South African agricultural sector integrated into the global community; hence today, we have an export-oriented agricultural sector that is competitive, with a reach in several markets across the globe.

Dr Ntombela acknowledges this positive progress of the sector. But what he decries is that while the sector has progressed on aggregate, black farmers have mainly been the spectators of agricultural progress in South Africa and not part of it. However, this is not a new observation. Scholars such as professors Kirsten, Vink, Van Zyl and Van Rooyen have effectively documented much of these dynamics since the late 1990s. There is also no consensus if the government statistics record all commercial transactions by Black farmers to truly reflect their contribution to commercial agricultural output. We make the same argument in my co-authored chapter in the recently published Oxford Handbook of the South African Economy.

On the point about the removal of farmer subsidies, it is worth appreciating that the South African government didn’t have much financial flexibility to pour money on farmers at times, while there were mounting social demands that the African National Congress had promised the people of South Africa leading up to its election.

Still, I don’t mention this to say there shouldn’t be better-coordinated support to black farmers from that period, but in the context of the economic limitations.

It is also essential that Dr Ntombela, a student of international trade, remind the readers that the global playing field for agricultural trade was levelled by removing all trade-distorting subsidies – all in the early 1990s during the GATT negotiations.

At the same time, the young ANC government was merely following the lead globally and also arguing that it is ‘good’ to remove the subsidies from the white farmers who have benefited from the support system during Apartheid. Unfortunately, the systems introduced by the new government were ineffective, mismanaged and did not reach all black farmers.

This is unfortunate as the current government system prevents black farmers from receiving the much-needed support that helped white farmers dominate commercial agriculture in South Africa.

As I argued in my book, Finding Common Ground: Land, Equity and Agriculture, “since the formation of the Union of South Africa, the government of the day introduced various initiatives, such as the establishment of the Land Bank in 1912 and the establishment of the Farmers Assistance Board in 1925, and the introduction of co-sponsored training programmes for labour in 1929 coupled with state assistance in creating employment. This was followed by establishing irrigation schemes tenant farmer support programmes, developing the local agricultural market infrastructure, and organizing agricultural marketing arrangements. There are many lessons which the new democratic government could have learned from these programmes!

Throughout most of the post-unification period, specifically from 1913, the sustained and substantial government support to agriculture was biased towards white (mainly small-scale and impoverished) farmers to commercialize them. Lacking a proportional amount of public support, black farmers suffered as a consequence. The Land Act of 1913 and the Co-operatives Act of 1920 are two key examples of the discriminatory public policies in those years.

The Land Act confined land ownership by blacks to dedicated native reserves, while the Co-operatives Act excluded black farmers from participating in farmer co-operatives. In 1925, the Farmer Assistance Board (predecessor of the Agricultural Credit Board) was established to assist farmers with soft loans in the aftermath of the recession of the early 1920s. Black farmers were once again excluded from accessing these government-backed credit programmes, and they were also excluded from participating in the farmer settlement programmes introduced in the late 1930s.”

Many government support programmes since 1994 have largely been ineffective in driving the commercialization of black farmers. Hence, we are stuck with the challenge of “two agricultures” in South Africa. In an essay for The Conversation, Professor Johann Kirsten and I detailed the government’s shortcomings that disadvantaged black farmers progress.

My disagreements

Dr Ntombela further notes that “After the fall of marketing control boards in 1997, farmers grouped themselves into commodity associations, and resumed some of the functions performed by then market control boards during the apartheid era.

Specifically, the new farmer associations started collecting industry data, conducting technical research, driving market development, determining the rate, and collecting statutory levies. Parallel to the rise of farmer associations is the downfall of state institutions supposed to service the sector.

For example, institutional challenges at the Land Bank encouraged farmer associations to develop their funding tools such as the HortFin in the fruit and wine industries. The concerns of operational inefficiencies and low budget allocation to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP) have inspired farmer associations to establish their own research houses to produce new varieties, animal vaccines and private product standards.

Effectively, these developments imply that black farmers are facing new barriers to entry in agriculture.”

The reality here is that mainly white farmers organized groups took control of their destiny because all government support was removed. They started to collect essential data that enabled market operations and invested in research because the government institutions didn’t fulfil this task efficiently. Some crucial data used to be collected by the marketing boards, and when they were demolished, the government didn’t efficiently assume this task. In the case of institutions such as the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP), corruption and inefficiency, specifically on the OBP, is widely covered in the news. And is partially blamed for the ‘broken agricultural system. Strangely, Dr Ntombela says nothing about the problems with Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Seeds and Remedies Act 36 of 1947 (registrations of new technology, medicines) and the critical issues related to animal health that destroys all commercial ambitions of black farmers.

Therefore, had the government institutions increased their capabilities and kept up with the changing global agriculture environment, we wouldn’t have had this void which resulted in new companies providing solutions in areas that the government’s institutions predominantly serviced.

Dr Ntombela also notes that “Noticing a need to achieve inclusive growth, the private farmer associations have initiated a variety of programmes, some in partnership with government to drive transformation. Unfortunately, these efforts have yielded limited success because the output from black farmers remains negligible at the sector level.

Ironically, the government continues to heavily rely on partnerships with farmer associations to transform the sector, and less focus or vigour is given to restoring technical capacity, operational efficiency and funding constraints to State-Owned Institutions such as the ARC, OBP, Land Bank, National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) and state departments.”

This is an incorrect observation of the current realities as there are very few demonstratable programmes that the government has deliberately partnered with the private sector and taken a ride. Consider chapter six of the National Development Plan, which urged partnerships and the National Treasury’s 2019 economic policy paper which argued for a joint venture approach to agricultural development. None of these programmes was fully implemented, and therefore, one can not argue that the demise of government institutions is because the attention has unfairly been given to the private sector. We have seen quite the opposite.

Ntombela ends his piece with a key policy question. He notes, “With the ruling government party preparing for its policy conference that will likely shape and affect the state policies in the next administration, it is crucial that the existing modalities and partnerships meant to drive inclusive growth in the sector are reviewed to bring in fresh and progressive ideas.

Some of the questions to be attended to during the review process include: Are private farmer associations the ideal model to drive meaningful transformation, given the potential competition and conflicting interests in the market? Is the transformation progress achieved to date through partnerships with private farmer associations justifies the amount government has spent?

These are all critical points, but focusing on whether partnerships are the right model for agricultural development is a distraction. The government institutions are weak and have failed to help black farmers on no fault of organized agriculture.

 Way forward

We should be asking how to scale up the better-delivering partnerships for the broad commercialization of black farmers. We can do this by leveraging not only on private-sector talent but also leveraging on their resources.

As we argued in The Conversation, this should be supported by also properly delivering (1) a land reform programme where there is a release of land already on the government’s book to beneficiaries with tradable land rights; (2) new beneficiary selection criteria. This should be appropriately applied to select the correct jockeys for the land on the land question; (3) improvements in efficiency in various regulations in the livestock industry and animal hygiene. This would help boost exports and improve the market access for farmers on communal land; (4) improvements in the efficiency in registering new agrochemicals and vaccines that can help make agriculture more efficient.

The current dualism in South Africa’s agriculture is not desirable. Still, agricultural development and progress of black farmers will likely be achieved through a social compact approach, as we demonstrated here.

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Jannie de Villiers’ retirement from Grain South Africa: End of an illustrious era

Jannie de Villiers’ retirement from Grain South Africa: End of an illustrious era

Mr Jannie de Villiers retires as Chief Executive Officer of Grain South Africa (Grain SA) at the end of August 2021, after a sterling career at the organization’s helm for a decade.

He joined Grain SA in 2011, just after a period of particularly great concern in the global food system. This was a period when prices were rising fastest between 2008 and 2010, in what was later termed the world food crisis. Prior to this, he had spent much of his career in food processing and also had a few stints in public service.

South Africa is not a small country in the global grain market by any stretch. While its maize production volumes might look relatively small compared to China, Brazil and the US, South Africa is the eighth largest maize exporter globally, with an average of 1,8 million tonnes exported per year.

During the period that Mr de Villiers was at Grain SA, he helped to open the organization’s head offices in Pretoria from Bothaville in the Free State, putting it closer to the policymakers to ease lobbying for grains and oilseeds farmer’s interests. This was an effective move as Grain SA has always been represented in policy discussions and contributes to land reform, trade policy, agricultural product standards, and fertilizer, seeds, and fuels regulations.

The results of these engagements have also been demonstrated through improving productivity at the farm level and rising exports, as a consequence of new technologies being approved by regulators in South Africa and successfully adopted by farmers.

If we consider just one major grain commodity, maize, its output increased by 56% over the period Mr de Villiers led Grain SA to an estimated 17,1 million tonnes at his retirement this year.

Mr de Villiers is also a great collaborator and used this skill efficiently to support the growth and development of South Africa’s soybean industry, which has been instrumental in boosting South Africa’s poultry production. Through working with farmers, soybean processors, private investors and the government, the collaborative effort saw South Africa’s soybean crushing capacity increasing from just over half a million tonnes to around 2,2 million tonnes. In response, farmers ramped up soybean production to now estimated 1,92 million tonnes – up 170% from 2011 when Mr de Villiers joined Grain SA.

I first met Mr de Villiers as a student in 2012 attending the Agbiz Congress in the Drakensberg. I quickly noticed his humility and people skills as he even graced our table of shy students, amongst many tables of industry experts to have a conversation and ensure that we were comfortable. We struck a conversation, and he gave me his business card. After emailing him upon my return to Stellenbosch University, he kindly arranged for my job interview at Grain SA, which enabled me to join the organization the following year. He gave me a chance to be of service to the agricultural industry at the early age of 23.

I had the rare privilege of enjoying his guidance, wisdom and mentorship, which was instrumental in shaping my career. During my time at Grain SA, Mr de Villiers provided a conducive environment for learning and allowed one to share their insights with members of the organization and the general public in media and various platforms.

When the research team was stretched and temporarily short-staffed following the departure of some senior economists, I found myself at the deep end of the work with no experience in some tasks. Mr de Villiers, an astute economist by training, would spare his afternoons to work with me in compiling the Supply and Demand estimates of South Africa’s grains and oilseeds market. Important, this was during a drought period, and the policymakers and public were eager to receive Grain SA’s guidance about the country and the region’s grain supplies. These were particularly great learning moments that provided me with expertise that I still apply in the soft commodity markets.

Mr de Villiers’ focus on the development of black farmers saw Grain SA open its first-ever offices in the Eastern Cape and various provinces to serve all farmers and ensure a good pull of black farmers in the sector.

His efforts on this end have yielded mixed results as the data from the National Agricultural Marketing Council tell us that black farmers still contribute a mere 4,7% share in commercial maize production in South Africa. Still, at a smallholder level, the productivity of farmers that were part of the Grain SA Farmer Development programme increased from around 1,7 tonnes per hectares to 4,0 per hectare, according to Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP).

South Africa’s grains and oilseeds industry gained prominence and success in production volumes and contributed to food security over the past decade. This, in part, is a testimony to the work of Mr de Villiers. The food security benefits are not just for South Africa but Southern Africa at large. His retirement from Grain SA is an end of an illustrious era.

On a personal level, Mr de Villiers is also a great mentor on life in general and religious issues. He always encourages us to keep the faith, pray and work hard. As he steps down from his corporate responsibilities, we will have more time to engage him on this particular side of mentorship.

Meneer de Villiers, I wish you well in your retirement!

An edited version of this article first appeared on Business Day, 30 August 2021

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Brief reflections on South Africa’s agriculture employment data for Q2, 2021

Brief reflections on South Africa’s agriculture employment data for Q2, 2021

My aim in this particular blog post is to share a note we (Agbiz) published earlier today commenting on the recently released Quarterly Labour Force Survey data for the second quarter of 2021. At the end of the post, we provide a brief view on the agricultural economic growth prospects for 2021, following a solid performance of 13,1% y/y in 2020.

South Africa’s agricultural jobs rebounded in the second quarter of 2021

After falling to the lowest levels since 2014 in the first quarter of this year, South Africa’s agricultural employment rebounded in the second quarter to 862 000 (up 8% year on year).[1] This is unsurprising because of bumper harvests on field crops and horticulture this season.

Moreover, the second quarter of each year is a period of higher activity in most agricultural industries, with harvesting underway, which requires increased labour. Notably, the scenario of higher agricultural commodity prices in a year of large harvests also boosted farmers’ incomes and, therefore, could retain and increase employment, even if seasonal.

From a regional perspective, except for the Western Cape and Mpumalanga, agricultural employment increased in the second quarter of 2021 compared with the corresponding period in 2020. Again, this can be explained by the need for more labour during a harvest period of a bumper crop.

The decline in employment in the Western Cape can be explained by the fact that the province’ wine and wine grape industry was hard hit by the lockdown regulations at various intervals in 2020 and this year. While the second quarter of this year’s 185 000 jobs in the Western Cape is not at its lowest compared to the first quarter’s 136 000, it is still well below the five-year average of 209 000 jobs.

For Mpumalanga, it is unclear what might have led to an 11% y/y decline in agricultural employment. The province had a vibrant field crop and horticulture season, both of which are generally labour-intensive. Perhaps the decline in forestry and game industry jobs might explain the province’s farm labour dynamics.

Overall, the employment data remain of interest following the 16,1% increase in the farm minimum wage to R21,69 per hour with effect on 1 March 2021. At the time of its publication, various commodity groups indicated that the increase in the minimum wage would cause a further squeeze on cash flow and negatively influence hiring decisions. But, the actual effects of the current minimum wage increase on jobs will only be apparent with a lag. We will continue to monitor the data.

Fundamentally, the agricultural economy is on a solid footing for a second consecutive year. In 2020, the sector’s gross value added expanded by 13,1% y/y. This year will likely also be another year of good performance, with the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) forecasting a 7% y/y growth.

[1] The Quarterly Quarterly Labour Force Survey data are available here.

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South Africa’s agricultural exports on track to beat 2020

South Africa’s agricultural exports on track to beat 2020

South Africa’s agricultural sector is export-orientated. Nearly half of the annual produce, in value terms, is exported in regular and good seasons. The 2020/21 season has been one such season, producing the second consecutive strong output performance, with an even larger harvest for major field crops, horticulture and the wine industry than in 2019/20. This robust production could boost exports to surpass the 2020 level of US$10,2 billion.

For example, in the first quarter of 2021, agricultural exports amounted to US$2,9 billion, which is a 28% year-on-year (y/y) increase. We now have the full data for the second quarter which showed an even stronger performance with exports valued at US$3,2 billion, up 36% y/y. This means that in the first half of 2021, South Africa’s agricultural exports amounted to US$6,1 billion, which is a 30% y/y increase. Compared with last year, the growth is partly because of base effects, as the first half of 2020 was heavily affected by the Covid-19 related disruptions to global supply chains. Still, the growth reflects rising export performance for various products.

In the second quarter of this year, the top exportable products were citrus, apples and pears, maize, wine, grapes, pineapples and avocados, wool, and nuts, amongst other products. These products will likely continue dominating the export list in the second half of the year; thanks to large production volumes. There were temporary delays in exports in the port of Durban at the start of July because of unrest. Moreover, later in July, there were additional brief delays in export activity across South Africa following IT glitches on Transnet systems. This will likely be reflected in the third quarter export trade activity. However, this does not change my view that exports could be larger in 2021 than the previous year because of the robust harvest.

To illustrate this point, consider the data from the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems, which estimated the 2021 wine grape crop at 1,5 million tonnes, 9% larger than the 2020 harvest. While there was a temporary ban on alcohol sales domestically, the exports continued for those entities with access to export markets, thus contributing to an increase in exports this year. The Citrus Growers’ Association forecasts South African citrus exports at a record 159 million cartons for this year, up by 9% from 2020. The citrus industry was affected by the temporary closures in the Port of Durban during the unrest at the start of July and later faced delays in export activity when Transnet experienced IT glitches. Still, the response to these challenges was swift, and export activity quickly resumed.

Moreover, South Africa could export 2,6 million tonnes of maize in the 2021/22 marketing year (this marketing year corresponds with the 2020/21 production season). This, however, would be 10% below the previous season because of an anticipated decline in Southern African demand. The rest of Southern Africa region is typically a key importer of maize from South Africa, but there is a major improvement in maize production across the region this year, and thus less need for South Africa’s maize.  These available maize export volumes are on the back of a large harvest which the Crop Estimates Committee forecasts at 16,4 million tonnes, the second largest on record.

From a destination point of view, the African continent and Asia were the largest markets for South Africa’s agricultural exports in the second quarter of this year, accounting for 34% and 26% in value terms, respectively. The European Union was the third-largest market, taking up 21% of South Africa’s agricultural exports in the second quarter of 2021. The balance of 19% of export value constitutes other regions of the world.

Notably, South Africa’s agricultural imports also increased in the second quarter of 2021 by 33% y/y to US$1,7 billion. The top imported products were the usual ones where domestic consumption usually outstrips domestic production. These are primarily palm oil, wheat, rice, poultry products and soybean oilcake, amongst other products. Rice, wheat, and palm oil will continue leading the agricultural import product list throughout the second half of the year. The International Grains Council forecasts South Africa’s 2021 rice imports at 1.1 million tonnes, a 5% increase from the previous year.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s 2020/21 wheat imports are forecast at 1,58 million tonnes, down by 16% y/y following an uptick in domestic production. I expect a notable decline in soybean meal imports as South Africa has a record soybean harvest of 1,92 million tonnes in the 2020/21 production season. The increase in domestic soybeans production should substitute a large share of the usual imports.

Overall, South Africa recorded an agricultural trade surplus of US$1,5 billion in the second quarter of 2021, which is a 40% y/y increase, in part because of lower base effects, as previously stated. With major economies in Europe, Asia, and the Americas recovering from the 2020 economic shock of the pandemic, we expect the demand for food products to remain firm and support exports in South Africa.

The relatively weaker exchange rate will also most likely keep South African agricultural products competitive for foreign buyers. As such, with the large volumes of production of various crops and fruits and sound output in the wool industry, I believe that South Africa’s 2021 agricultural exports are on track to exceed the 2020 level of US$10,2 billion.

From a policy perspective, South Africa has an export-orientated agricultural sector, which means that there need to be continuous improvements on logistics and an expansion of export markets to the new destination. These efforts should be well sequenced and complement the ongoing attempts of boosting domestic production through various interventions such as Master Plans.

In my view, South African policymakers should prioritise these additional export markets: China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. These are large and growing markets, yet South Africa still has minimal agricultural presence.

In terms of logistics, the ongoing engagements between industry and Transnet to address bottlenecks and efficiency challenges at the ports and rail are a step in the right direction of supporting further export-orientated growth in South Africa’s agricultural sector.

The article was written for and first published on News24/Fin24.

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Rising costs to keep South African farmers on their toes

Rising costs to keep South African farmers on their toes

Amid an abundant harvest, high agricultural commodity prices have been an ironic windfall for South African farmers, particularly the grain and oilseed growers. However, farmers should manage their portfolios well, as input costs have also been rising, namely: oil, herbicides, and fertilizer. Such higher costs have the potential to erode these price gains when farmers embark on the 2021/22 production campaign, commencing in October this year.

At the end of the first week of July 2021, Brent crude oil price was up by 72% y/y, trading around US$74 per barrel. The oil price has a close correlation with fertilizer prices and various agrochemical inputs. As such, herbicide prices show similar increases in US dollar terms, with glyphosate up by 144% y/y in June 2021. Importantly, South Africa imports all of its annual agrochemical’ consumption. This means that it is not only the rise in prices that should be a concern, but also the logistics of landing the inputs on the back of disruption in supply chains and continuous reports of container shortages.

The same is true with fertilizer, with potash, urea, monoammonium phosphate (MAP), and diammonium phosphate (DAP) prices, for example, up by 32%, 52%, 67%, and 69% y/y, respectively, in the first week of July 2021.

The tight global supplies, strong demand and geopolitical uncertainties in crucial producing countries have been the primary driver of prices in all these commodities. Recently, OPEC’s failure to reach a deal to increase the global oil production is one factor causing tight oil supplies in the global market and ultimately driving up prices.

The expectation from various analysts globally is that fertilizer prices could remain elevated for some time. Now, South Africa is just three months away from the new season’s planting period, which means that the country’s farmers are unlikely to be spared the higher input costs.

If we consider grain and oilseed farmers, who are the main subject of our discussion; fuel generally accounts for between 11% and 13% of production costs. The consumption of fuel takes place generally throughout the year, with the highest periods being the planting and harvesting periods. In terms of annual fuel usage, it is worth noting that South Africa transports roughly 81% of maize, 76% of wheat, and 69% of soybeans by road. On average, 75% of national grains and oilseeds are transported by road. This means farm managers and agribusinesses will have to plan well for an environment much different from last year when input costs were relatively lower.

South Africa imports about 80% of its annual fertilizer requirements and is a minor player globally, accounting for a mere 0.5% of total global consumption. Hence local prices tend to be influenced by developments in the major producing and consuming countries, such as India, Russia, the USA and Canada. Hence, the higher global fertilizer prices will be experienced in South Africa as well.

Much of the fertilizer imported by South Africa is utilized in maize production, accounting for 41% of total fertilizer consumption in the country, with the second-largest consumer being sugar cane at 18%. Fertilizer constitutes about 35% of grain farmers’ input costs and a substantial share in other agricultural commodities and crops.

In essence, the higher grain prices and harvest might look good on the financial books in the near term, but farmers and agribusinesses will have to maneuver well to tide them over this challenging environment of rising input costs in the coming months. Even worse, if the grain prices could soften somewhat from the current higher levels (which is all too likely on the back of expected sizeable global harvests in the 2021/22 season), then farming margins could be even further squeezed in the coming months.

Another critical factor for the domestic farmers will be the performance of the rand to the US dollar, which is key in determining the prices of production inputs when planting begins in October. As such, although the prevailing higher grain and oilseed prices are a welcome development from a farmer’s perspective, they will need to shrewdly mitigate the primary and knock-on effects of potentially higher input costs in the weeks to come.

This essay first appeared on Business Day, 14 July 2021

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