The threat is evident in the numbers. By yesterday, 6,131 hectares of crops had been planted by 1,101 farmers across the country. This is in contrast to 384,250 hectares planted last season by 100,250 farmers.
While the numbers in the 2016/17 season represented record highs driven by a strong rain season, the scale of the challenge facing farmers this year is unmistakable. A recent tour by Mmegi news crews in northern and southern districts found kilometre after kilometre of untilled land, with the few that were ploughed, spotting heat-stressed crops.
Hundreds of thousands of families across the country depend on subsistence farming for both nutrition and income, a fact recognised by government which since 2008 has provided billions of pula in agricultural inputs under the Integrated Support Programme for Arable Agricultural Development (ISPAAD).
In the last few years, ISPAAD has averaged P500 million of support to subsistence farmers in the form of tillage services, seeds, herbicides, pesticides, education and others every season and for the most part, production has increased.
Through ISPAAD, government invests in food security and rural incomes, while relieving the weight on social security programmes such as Ipelegeng.
This season, farmers across the country and Agriculture ministry officials have all been blindsided by a prolonged dry spell that lasted from November till late January and ran counter to rosy forecasts provided in September by the Meteorological Services Department.
Two successive heatwaves in January – equally unexpected – further seared hopes of a bountiful season on the fields. The sense of déjà vu is strong amongst farmers who remember that the El Nino droughts between 2014 and 2016 were characterised by a series of heatwaves.
The delay in rains means most farmers in the South will scramble to plough before government’s new cut-off date of February 7, after which certain ISPAAD inputs will no longer be available.
Even with a wetter February forecast, nothing is certain, experts warn.
“The crops our farmers go for take about three months to mature. After December 21, we know that day length, or the hours available in a day decrease meaning the hours of sun the crops need reduce.
“This reduction in day length as the months progress, also means the threat of frost sets in faster.
ploughing season can only be by one week. Anything more than that is a waste of (ISPAAD) funds as the crops are unlikely to reach physiological maturity.
“This one week extension of the ploughing season is all that farmers can be helped with, even though they would want a longer period,” says an agriculturalist.
After February 7, the nation will know the fate that awaits subsistence farmers in the South. In the North, the ploughing season ends on February 15, but surveys there also indicate limited ploughing activities thus far.
Agricultural Development and Food Security minister, Patrick Ralotsia is intimately aware of the impending threat. Ralotsia has been touring affected districts and, using his social media, has been urging farmers to pray for rain.
“I’m very worried as the minister of agriculture about a drought,” he tells Mmegi.
“The state of agricultural production is poor. These things have a ripple effect. For instance, pasture affects the quality of the animals, which affects the quality of meat which affects our relations with clientele in the international market.”
He continues: “I have been around the farms and generally where we have rain, it has been very late. There are still areas that have not received rain yet. The year is not as palatable as we thought it would be especially coming from the Cyclone Dineo experience.
“We thought, if anything, we may have less than Dineo, but not these extreme levels we are experiencing now. “We thought Dineo would cool temperatures even if we did not receive as much rain as before.”
A senior officer in the Agriculture ministry says no one there is dreaming of a repeat of the 2016/17 season. “Last year was a record in terms of hectarage planted and numbers of farmers who planted. This year will not get anywhere near there, but the numbers we have now will certainly increase.
“It’s only now that the country is receiving widespread rains, but before that, there were areas that had not seen a drop.”
Even as many report that they have given up on the season, the eternal optimism famous amongst farmers means large numbers will still take to the fields in the decisive week ahead to try their luck and leave the rest to the Almighty.