I concluded 2017 with a positive outlook for South Africa's agriculture in 2018 -- underpinned by good chances of La Niña weather conditions during the 2017/18 summer season. This essentially meant that the country was expected to receive above-normal rainfall, which would have been good for agricultural activity.
Disappointingly, that picture has changed somewhat and is now mixed. The eastern parts of South Africa received good rainfall during the festive season, and crops are generally in a fair condition – albeit affected by hail in some areas. This area covers Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, the eastern Free State and the northern parts of Eastern Cape.
Meanwhile, the central and western parts of South Africa received very little rainfall in the final few weeks of 2017, and they have also had a drier start to 2018.
This led to delays in summer-crop planting activity, particularly in North West and the western parts of Free State. These provinces collectively account for 68 percent of the planned maize-planting area of 2.47-million hectares in the 2017/18 season. They also account for 86 percent of the 665,500 hectares intended for sunflower-seed production in the 2017/18 season.
The most recent survey from Grain SA suggests that farmers in both these provinces were unable to meet their maize-planting deadlines due to persistent dryness. Farmers in North West have planted 70 percent of the intended area of 580,000 hectares. Meanwhile, farmers in the central and north-western parts of Free State have planted roughly 75 percent of their intended area.
The optimal maize-planting window has already passed, so even if South Africa were to suddenly receive widespread showers, there would be minimal improvement in planting activity in these particular provinces. Any maize planted outside the optimal window risks being affected by frost later in the season, which in turn increases the likelihood of poor yields.
In terms of sunflower seed, farmers have so far planted roughly 40 percent of their intended crop in North West. In the north-western parts of Free State, the progress is much slower, with only 20 percent of the intended area planted so far.
Fortunately, the optimal planting window is still open until January 20. Therefore, if South Africa happens to receive good rainfall before this cut-off date, farmers could still plant sunflower seed.
The outlook on food inflation will not change significantly in the near to medium term due to the buffer of large stocks from the previous season.
At the time of writing, weather forecasts were painting an optimistic picture of between 16 and 60 millimetres of rainfall in the weeks between January 9 and 24, 2018. While this will not be sufficient to fully replenish soil moisture, it will be a welcome development following weeks of dryness.
Fortunately, these developments come on the heels of a very good season, with record maize and oilseed harvests in the 2016/17 production season. This means the country is still well supplied in the short to the medium term.
This good availability is also reflected in commodity prices, which are still under pressure despite the unfolding unfavourable weather conditions. On January 9, 2018, the white maize spot price was roughly 40 percent lower than the corresponding period last year, trading around R1,991 per ton, and the sunflower seed spot price was down 14 percent year-on-year, trading at around R4,757 per ton.
On balance, while this is an immediate concern for farming communities, the outlook on food inflation will not change significantly in the near to medium term due to the buffer of large stocks from the previous season.
Overall, a clearer picture of South Africa's 2017/18 grain and oilseed production will unravel later this month, when the National Crop Estimate Committee releases its preliminary planting-estimates data.
For now, we can just kneel and pray for rainfall. Perhaps the expected La Niña will materialise later in the season – hopefully not too late for all the crops, as some are already wilting.
This is an extract of a column published in Business Day, January 11, 2018