Investors, be on the lookout for diseases!

Since the onset of the rain season in the third quarter of December, it has not failed us in most areas. Our hope is that we can have a February, which is as good as January, then we will be assured of fair harvest in most parts of the country. As farmer and someone that has so much passion for farming, I would like to see the hard working yet the most abused farmer to get the best benefit for their harvest. Like I predicted even before the onset of the season, I expect very good prices of commodities this year. I can assure you that Congo DR, Zimbabwe, Malawi and other countries will present a market in the region as well as South Africa for certain commodities like soybean.

For now, we should not allow any farming challenges to distract our goal of making money as investors. One of the challenge that we know is going to always be there until an effective solution is found, is the risk of fall army worms attacking our crop. I think we discussed this topic in depth in our June article last year. There are so many solutions on the market that can be used including biological control of the pest. Like we discussed, these pests can easily develop resistance to any solution therefore, don’t misuse or use one solution continuously or wrongly to control the pest; always practice good pest control methods of not spraying the same solution more than twice in the growing season of the crop. There is no part of the country which is safe from this menace; all provinces have the pest. My observation this season after going round enjoying chibwantu and mabisi with farmers, I have noted that there are also other pests like grasshoppers and some beetles that are attacking crops. It could be early to conclude that it is nationwide but farmers need to be aware of the pest.

The next thing that farmers should be aware of are the diseases, especially the fungal. The environment so far has been so conducive for fungal disease outbreaks and we have already seen some diseases setting in quite early in the crop cycle. We have observed the outbreak of red leaf blotch and rust on soybeans, for instance. These are diseases that normally set in when the crop has canopied but I have seen on several commercial farms so far, these diseases are attacking a young crop that has not even reached flowering stage. This is expected because of our cropping systems; on most farmlands, we have been practicing maize-soya rotation for smallholders and in certain instances for commercial farmers, they have added wheat-soybean rotation. This has attracted buildup of diseases and overwintering of disease causing organisms in the environment. We all know that the leaf is the kitchen for plants and we want to ensure that our plants maintain all the leaves necessary for photosynthesis. Frog eye is another disease that has become so common on our soybeans and we should try by all means to ensure we prevent our plants to catch or eradicate it when we see the first symptoms. Last season, we saw the bacterial blight attack on wheat and we should be prepared to see the soybean based blights. Additionally, some fields exhibited attack by nematodes and this is one pest that we need to prepare for though I do not know of anything that can be sprayed on soybean to eradicate it once signs are seen as opposed to tomato and potatoes that have products for this pest. The other reason we are seeing the onset of these disease coming early is that we had a shortage of soybean seed on the market this season. Most seed companies had run out of the commodity as early as September. This forced many farmers to plant commercial grain or ‘recycled seed’ as they call it. We know the implication of this besides spreading diseases; you may have compromised yields. I have seen with regret some farmers that have planted half of their fields because they could not find seed on the market. I guess this is an opportunity the seed companies must grasp without delay. This is not the only season we have seen this unfortunate thing, we had shortages of soybean in 2014, 2015 and 2016. This problem has been there for so many years because I can remember so vividly in 2011 and 2012 when I was working for an NGO, we had problem sourcing seed for the farmers we were working with; we had to buy commercial grain and take it for germination test with ZARI before distributing it to the farmers. So farmers watch out for diseases in the soya by consistently scouting your crop.

This will also be true with maize except that we are sometimes so preoccupied with the menacing fall army worm that we don’t notice diseases in maize. Most maize diseases set in at the time the crop is tussling and grain filling. This is the most difficult time to even spray because normally there will be continuous rains that hinders farmers from going to their fields. However, we are lucky in that some companies have come up with crop spray programmes and you will note that the first fungicide can be sprayed at about six weeks or when the crop is knee high. Grey leaf spot, northern corn blights are some of the common diseases in maize though you can also find rust. When you have a very wet season, there is most likely that you will have a break out of maize mosaic virus, and remember just like any viral disease it has no curative chemical but if you understand how the disease is spread, you can easily avoid it. It is like the outbreak of army worms has reduced the occurrence of this disease. This is expected because some chemicals used to control this pest also can kill grasshoppers and aphids that are carriers for this disease. So my dear investors, let’s be on the lookout for the diseases in our crops. Literally all crops have diseases, so the fact that I have not talked about diseases in groundnuts, sorghum, cassava and many other crops does not exclude them from this risk. By the way are cassava farmers aware about a company that will be making bioethanol from cassava? This is a great opportunity for market besides the Zambian Breweries one. May be we should talk about this crop again though we discussed it in 2013.

This author is an agribusiness management consultant. ftembo2001@gmail.com.

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