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Be a Climate Smart Farmer

June 2016

One of the keynote speakers to address the Grain SA Congress delegates in March this year was meteorologist Professor Willem Landman. His message contained a warning that in the face of all the potentially negative impacts of climate change on infrastructure, water security and food production in Southern Africa, society is being forced to plan ahead.

In August 2015 climatologists were already predicting the high likelihood of an El Niño phenomenon. How many farmers actually took note of the early warnings being issued? By 24 September a warning said: 'Drought predictions for Southern Africa – El Niño is back, bringing misery for subsistence farmers in particular'? The predictions warned 'soaring temperatures and below-average rainfall are likely to be features of the coming South African summer as the strongest El Niño event in decade's climbs towards a peak', and: 'There is a reasonable chance that we could be heading for the hottest summer on record.' And recent history has proven these predictions true. Landman said their models actually slightly underestimated the intensity compared to what eventually did realise early in 2016. Yet despite this knowledge many farmers planted full out as per usual.

Landman specialises in developing systems capable of providing seasonal forecasts of weather conditions and characteristics associated with rainfall and temperatures many months in advance. The challenge is to ensure that such forecasts generated by state of the art models can have a positive impact on society in such a way that people's lives may be improved. Landman said climatologists have great ability to project temperature scenarios in the future for seasons ahead. Extreme maximum temperatures can be projected rather reliably. And what's more important, future scenario charts show a lot more red zones in the future. Temperatures are projected to rise significantly. It appears there will however not be significant changes in precipitation levels although the trend will be towards drier conditions. The consequence will certainly be shifts in production area and reduced yields over time.

Landman said changes in weather can have health implications like increased occurrence of malaria and skin cancer. Even heat waves have a negative effect on health. The weather bureau tries to send out early warnings when they see the trends in a particular direction.

One of the roles that weather forecasters play in the life of a farmer is forecasting seasonal weather patterns and droughts. Landman is involved in predicting El Niño events – a prolonged warming in the Pacific Ocean notorious for leading to droughts, and La Nina – higher rainfall conditions. The information makes informed decision making in agriculture possible. There is cause for concern in all agricultural sectors with sugar cane and maize losing billions of rand and stock farmers suffering but the major cause for concern is the subsistence and small scale farmers who grow just enough crops for their livestock and own use. The impact is severe and over 10 million rural inhabitants could now be facing serious food shortages.

It is important that we understand that farmers are not totally helpless in the face of climate change. Many things can be done to improve the chances of crop success. BUT we hold the key in our own hands! The main risk reduction factor is knowledge. Farmers must recognise that we cannot continue doing the same thing in the same way as our fathers did before. Knowledge of soil health, weed control, cultivar options and seed treatments are all dynamic and evolving facets which we must know about so that we can make educated choices. By the time we place the new season's seeds in the soil we must know that we have done everything possible to give the seed the best opportunity to grow and yield well. Becoming a Climate Smart Farmer means we reduce vulnerability in our farming systems if for example we practice crop diversification, control weeds effectively, plant drought tolerant crop varieties, build up reserves of fodder for our livestock, store our grain safely and maximise the available water by ensuring there is no run-off.

'Climate-smart agriculture' is a call for farmers to adapt to changes in climate and to reduce on-farm risks as climate risk steadily increases, by being prepared to learn new methods and adapt to using new technology to their advantage. Transformation is required in the way our natural resources of land, water, soil and soil nutrition and genetic resources are managed. We need to be more efficient. There are too many examples of effort and expense being ploughed into planting a small plot of land and these endeavours coming to nought, either because the soil was not adequately nourished, the time of planting was off or weeds were allowed to grow higher than the crop itself. This is a common sight in rural South Africa. Managers of Grain SA's Farmer Development Programme say that it is necessary to teach the importance of doing the correct operations at the correct time as developing farmers often put in a lot of effort, but still do not always follow the correct procedures for crop production through to the end of the season.

Do yourself a favour and start reading as much as possible about climate change, talk to your fellow farmers and find out best practices for your region. Be a Climate Smart Farmer from the start to the end of the season!

Article submitted by Jenny Mathews, Pula Imvula contributor
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Publication: June 2016

Section: Pula/Imvula