Skepticism over future of cotton farming

cotton farmer 1

The cotton industry used to be one of the most vibrant in the country. In the 1990s, there were more than 350 000 farmers in the sector, growing as much as 353 000 tonnes annually.

Farai Mabeza

GODFREY Zambuko, a farmer from Nyanga North’s Nyakomba Irrigation Scheme, does not mince his words as he talks about something that he is so obviously passionate about: Farming.
Born in a family of cotton farmers, Zambuko and his wife grew cotton for five years, until they abandoned the “white gold”, as it used to be known, two years ago due to falling prices.
The Zambukos simply joined a bandwagon of other farmers across the country that had realised that cotton farming had become unviable due to falling global prices and a declining local textile sector.
In the 2016 National Budget statement, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced that government would provide free inputs to farmers for three consecutive seasons to revive cotton farming.
Under the plan, government provided 4 156 tonnes of seed to farmers, which translates to 245 000 hectares. But those estimates have been severely reconfigured by the spectre of a catastrophic drought that has already been declared a national disaster by government.
To farmers like Zambuko, who did not take up the offer this season, the inputs offered by the State were simply not enough to assure them to return to cotton farming. They want to know the producer prices before they agree to start growing cotton again.
“The government did not tell us how much they will be buying the cotton for. That is the most important issue. We need that assurance, that we will be able to recoup our own input costs, including our labour, time and others and also make a profit,” Zambuko explains.
“The inputs are not as free as it sounds because we still have to factor in these production costs so they must tell us the selling price so that we can calculate our production costs and assess viability,” he added.
Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Lands, Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development chairperson, Christopher Chitindi, said while the free inputs would cut the cost of production for a farmer by at least 40 percent, the other 60 percent would have to be covered by the farmer.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union president,Wonder Chabikwa, believes that prices will change for the better “because farmers will now have access to inputs from government, which means farmers can set their own prices and not depend on the buyers to set the prices on their behalf”.
Zambuko points out that he and his wife had already taken up tabasco (very hot red peppers) production. While highlighting the problems facing communal farmers, Zambuko said although the profit margin (on growing tabasco) is still small, it is a better option than cotton.
The cotton industry used to be one of the most vibrant in the country. In the 1990s, there were more than 350 000 farmers in the sector, growing as much as 353 000 tonnes annually.
Cotton reached its peak production in 2000 as it became the source of livelihood in areas such as Muzarabani and Gokwe. But output is expected to decline further this season due to the drought.
“The El Niño phenomenon is likely to reduce yields compared to the volumes of the seed taken by farmers,” the country’s biggest cotton ginning company, Cottco, said recently.
In the 2014/15 season, the cotton industry’s national crop declined to 100 000 tonnes from 135 000 tonnes in the 2013/14 season. In 2011, Zimbabwe produced 268 000 tonnes.

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