Emaciated cattle‚ barren land and a livelihood slowly crumbling to dust. This is the reality faced every morning by Wilhelm Stemmet.
He has joined the ranks of farmers whose cries for help ring out from far and wide as they try to survive in the midst of a debilitating drought. The rooibos and cattle farmer from Vanrhynsdorp in the Western Cape is hoping for rain‚ but casts his eyes upwards to blue skies.
Stemmet described his daily routine‚ waking up to barren farm land‚ as an image that he has been forced to become accustomed to. Dusty winds like he has never experienced‚ emaciated animals and farm workers trying to stretch out whatever work there is available.
“I am 55-years-old and I have never experienced a drought like this. Everything on the farm is going to ruins‚” he told TimesLIVE.
Stemmet cannot help but get emotional when he speaks of the financial burden of the drought.
“It is a lot of stress on one person because everyone looks to you to for an answer – the animals‚ your workers‚ your family. But I will remain hopeful that the rains will come anytime soon. The farm workers we have supported us very well.”
During the interview‚ he apologises profusely for allowing his emotions get the better of him.
“It weighs heavily on all of us and especially me as the provider. I am thankful for all the help that we do get. We still have drinking water which does not make the situation for us as dire. It would be a very sad day when we don’t have drinking water‚” he said.
But this doesn’t help his crops.
“Rooibos tea is dependent on rains. We would normally get 250 mm of rain but the past year we only got 30 mm of rain. There is no growth. With the rooibos tea‚ you get a quarter of your normal harvest. My rooibos business is being threatened. I can see it with my harvest that I don’t get the quantities I got in previous years. Most farmers have either sold or slaughtered their livestock. I have had to decrease my livestock numbers.”
It’s a feeling anyone who has grown up on a farm knows well: the excruciating helplessness of looking out over your parched veld or crops and watching rain fall from heavy clouds in the distance, on another family’s farm.
Almost as painful is the hopelessness you are left with after hearing the rumble of thunder, and seeing clouds gather over your farm, only for them to be blown away before they could release a single drop of water.
I wish I knew exactly what to say to encourage those farmers in South Africa who are facing a third consecutive failed harvest, who have had to choose which of their crops they will save, and which they will have to watch wither away, and those who have no idea where the feed, or the money to feed their animals, will come from this year.
When I think back to my childhood spent on my parents’ KZN farm, my memories of rain are mostly happy.
Rain meant that we would get pancakes for lunch; thunder meant we would be without electricity and a phone for at least 24 hours or even longer. Rain would also be accompanied by a feeling of peace and stillness.
Livestock farmers in the Northern Cape had thus far reduced their livestock numbers by more than 30% as a result of the persisting drought, according to Henk van Wyk, the president of Agri Northern Cape.
Van Wyk said the total herd reduction was difficult to quantify, but that the number of farmers who had lost their entire herds was dramatically escalating.
“I know of many producers who were left with no choice but to send all the sheep they [managed] to keep alive to feedlots,” he said.
Van Wyk said that farming conditions between Carnavon and Vosburg were dire, as a result of insufficient rain and high temperatures over the past four years.
Conditions in the Brandvlei, Loeriesfontein, Pofadder and Granaatkolk regions were equally dismal.
The drought gripping the Western Cape shows no sign of abating and threatens to decimate the province’s crucial agricultural sector.
Halfway through the Western Cape’s winter rainy season, rainfall remains disappointingly erratic, dam levels are still critically low and farmers are anxious, with big losses expected.
Agriculture is the backbone of the province’s economy. The Western Cape produces more than 50% of SA’s agricultural exports, with the EU being one of the biggest export destinations. The region also accounts for almost 75% of annual offshore wine sales, worth R5bn.
The drought has already taken a toll on agricultural production. An analysis by economists in the Western Cape department of agriculture found that a 10% reduction in yields as a result of the drought could cost the economy R3.2bn and place 17,000 jobs under threat.
“Our research also shows that a 30% loss of agricultural water in the Western Cape could lead to losses in farm income to the total of R309m,” says provincial economic opportunities MEC Alan Winde.
Apple exports are down 9% and pears 6% on 2016 as a direct result of the drought, says fruit industry body Hortgro.
“We might run into trouble now if it doesn’t start raining soon and a lot‚” Hortgro GM for trade and markets Jacques du Preez says. “The ongoing drought will have a negative knock-on effect on next year’s crop. The degree has yet to be determined‚ but the trees have taken stress.”
The effect of the drought is getting worse and more devastating, says Carl Opperman, CEO of Agri Western Cape, a body that represents farmers.
“Although we are thankful for every drop, the rainfall over the past few weeks had no impact on agriculture in the province. There are no more pastures in the province and roughage hasn’t been available for months in the province. The province has also seen a massive reduction in livestock as the drought continues.”
Willem Symington, Agri Northern Cape’s Disaster Management committee chairman, said Namaqualand, Boesmanland and the Hantam District Municipality are being particularly hard hit by the now two-year-long drought in the area.
Symington, who farms near Loeriesfontein, said the drought, which began in 2014, has escalated significantly, and that farmers’ cash flow is depleted.
Henning Myburgh, Agri Northern Cape CEO, said: “The situation is critical. Livestock is dying at an alarming rate and commercial banks have reached a point where they can’t afford to extend credit facilities. The number of farmers who simply can’t continue as is, is increasing significantly.”
The country’s farmers have contributed somewhat to alleviating the situation.
Myburgh said large donations have been received from, among others, Free State farmers.