Drought sees cane estimates sink lowest in 18 years

The severe drought in many of KZN’s canegrowing areas has caused staggering losses in the sugar industry. Reduced production means that 318 000t of sugar will not be exported, robbing the industry of R1,1 billion of foreign exchange Of this, KZN growers will lose R665 million.

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Critically affected regions are dryland farms on the upper south coast, north coast and Zululand, although a significant drop in rainfall in the lower south coast, Midlands and northern Zululand regions has also placed the crop under severe stress there.Canegrowers chairperson Suresh Naidoo said industry crop estimates were revised down from 19 million tons to 16,6 million tons of cane.

“That’s a long way off the normal crop of 23 million tons. It’s one of the lowest estimates we’ve had in 18 years,” said Naidoo. Some of the largest crop losses will come from the Maidstone mill group, where estimates have been revised from 1,06 million tons to 660 000t (402 000t or 38% lower) and Darnall, where estimates have fallen from 1 million tons to 680 000t (320 000t or 32% less).

Other revised estimates include Amatikulu from 1,30 million tons to 1,01 million tons (281 000t or 21% lower); Gledhow from 1,20 million tons to 859 000t (336 000t or 28% lower); Sezela from 2,03 million tons to 1,68 million tons (341 000t or 17% less); Umzimkulu from 1,06 million tons to 738 000t (322 000t or 30% less); and Illovo/Eston from 1,20 million tons to 1,01 million tons (149 000 or 15% less).

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“It will take two years for these farms to recover,” said Naidoo. Some areas, like Illovo, Union Co-op (whose crop estimate declined 3,5%) and Noodsburg (whose crop estimate declined 10%), will experience a bigger drop next year as they’re on a two-year cycle.A sugar farm should yield 60t/ha to make a profit. However, this year, the average is 18t/ha to 40t/ha. “Few fields came in at 50t/ha to 60t/ha,” said Naidoo.The full extent of stool mortality will only be known after the spring rains. Already, extensive replant programmes will be required, a costly exercise most growers can ill afford after five economically challenging years.

While any rains will be welcomed, it’s too late to assist with tonnage for this season, and the arrival of hot summer weather will only exacerbate stool mortalities.Gledhow Valley grower Mark Bouwer, who leases 600ha from the community in the Gledhow mill area, has lost entire fields to stool mortality, and will have to replant. From June to September, the long-term average (LTA) of his area was 594ml. “We’ve had 221ml to date,” he said.

“And in January to April, our peak growing period, the LTA is 400ml. We’ve had 197ml.”While the Gledhow Mill average is 28% lower than original estimates, some individuals are 40% to 50% lower than average years. Bouwer’s tonnage has fallen from 35 000t to 26 000t, for example. “I should have 600ha under irrigation, but I’ve switched it off,” said Bouwer. “There’s no water in the Umvoti River.”The reduced tonnage means most mills are closing early, in October and November, and growers face a long seven-month period without income.

Canegrowers forecasts large staff layoffs over the Christmas period.Canegrowers has petitioned government and the Land Bank to help growers. “We need assistance to rehabilitate farms in a hurry,” said Naidoo. “Farmers need to get back on track as soon as possible once the rains come, or next year will be just as bad.”Canegrowers is seeking tailor-made packages based on individual assessments. Relief could take the form of restructuring debt finance through interest holidays, reduced interest rates or a moratorium on loan payments.

Assessments of crop vigour with possible funding for replant programmes is also being sought and Canegrowers has asked government to help keep labour in work through job creation funds like alien-invader removal, drainage schemes and rural-road maintenance. The provision of new boreholes and the reassessment of old boreholes is also needed. “We’re not looking for handouts,” said Naidoo. “We’re looking for sustainable re-establishment loans for farmers from financial institutions with the possibility of subsidised interest from government, given their current financial predicament.”