Rain must fall or wheat prices will rise

A cycle of poor rainfall in the southern Cape in the next few years could deal a crippling blow to Western Cape wheat harvests.

Santam agricultural meteorologist Johan van den Berg warns there is a strong possibility of a dry cycle leading to poorer rainfall in the country’s top wheat-growing region during the growing season.

A drop in wheat production could force the country to import more and drive up bread prices.

Mr Van den Berg said wheat production over much of the province had benefited from well-timed rains in the past few years, but that was unlikely to be the case in future.

“During the past few years, average to above-average rainfall fell during the growing season in the Western Cape wheat district, although in 2015 the Swartland area of the Western Cape had below-average rainfall.

“The Swartland wheat harvest fell to 368 000 tons in 2015, in comparison to harvests of 593 000 tons in 2014 and 558 893 tons in 2013.

“September is a critical rainfall month for Western Cape wheat, as the plants are then in their reproduction phase and drought-induced stress can inflict great damage,” said Mr Van den Berg.

He believes weaker rainfall will be concentrated in the southern Cape as opposed to the Swartland area over the next few years.

According to chief operating officer of Laeveld Agrochem, Neel Rust, South Africa’s annual wheat demand is more than 3 million tons and the Western Cape harvested more than a third of that – 1.098 million tons – in 2016, according to the National Crop Estimates Committee’s figures.

Wheat was sown in the Western Cape until the end of May, and it was important that rain fell before mid-June, but preferably before the end of May, so new plants could emerge and establish.

Mr Rust said rain must also fall in the vegetative part
of the growth season, from June to August, but September was most critical and not
much rain was predicted for then.

Mr Rust said South Africa would need to import more to meet the demand for wheat.

National Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries senior statistician Rona Beukes agreed.

The 1.098m tons of wheat harvested in the Western Cape last year contributed more than half (57%) of the country’s total crop, so a reduction in the province’s harvest would see imports rise “to meet the local consumption requirements”.

South African Grain Information Service (SAGIS) general manager Nico Hawkins said SA already imported more than half of its wheat.

He noted though that local wheat prices were lower than last year, and they tended to be influenced more by international wheat prices and the exchange rate, so a smaller crop in the Western Cape, he said, would not affect the price of wheat-based products too much as long as the current pricing trend continued.