Drought starting to cost sugar farmers big

Sugarcane growers in the Darnall and Maidstone areas of KwaZulu-Natal have already lost more than 35% of their revenue to the drought.

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This figure is expected to escalate as more of the crop is lost this season.“The north and south coast sugar-growing areas have been hardest hit,” said Jayne Ferguson of Canegrowers. Darnall and Maidstone growers have lost 39,27% and 35,09% of their income respectively, while Sezela growers have lost 22,22%, Gledhow 16,65%, Amatikulu 16,16%, Eston 10,41% and Umzimkulu growers 10,19%.

“This raises concerns on a variety of fronts,” said Ferguson. “Mills will probably be closing earlier than normal, which means growers won’t receive any income until the mills re-open in April or May 2011. Growers will also have to source financing to accommodate the unusually long off-crop.

“And this will affect employment in the rural areas as farmers will have to lay off workers earlier.” Canegrowers recently held a meeting with a delegation from the KZN agriculture department’s Agriculture Disaster Management Directorate to discuss different rescue packages for different categories of growers.

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“We’re seeking an appointment with the national minister of agriculture and are meeting with various institutions like the Land Bank and the National Agricultural Marketing Council,” said Ferguson. “We’re not looking for handouts from government. We’re looking for sustainable re-establishment loans for farmers from financial institutions, with the possibility of subsidised interest from government.”

The irony is that when the rains do arrive, it may help keep some of the roots of the crop alive, but it can’t reverse the loss of tonnage for this season. The knock-on effects of the drought will also impact heavily on the 2011/12 season.“The dry conditions have resulted in widespread cane stool mortality, which is going to adversely affect yields next year unless large-scale replanting is done,” explained Ferguson. “But because of the drought, growers won’t be able to afford a replant programme of the magnitude required.”