While this is hardly an industry not being hammered by the country’s electricity crisis, the agriculture sector is arguably among the hardest hit, due to the concurrent impacts of fuel price hikes and other crises.
According to executive director of Agri SA, Christo van der Rheede, the current high stages of load shedding are having a devastating impact on the agriculture sector, and this poses the risk of destabilising the country as a whole.
Van der Rheede explained how the sector – which is reliant on electricity as well as diesel for the production, harvesting, and the processing of agriculture goods – is impacted by the never-ending rolling blackouts.
“The agriculture sector plays a critical role in terms of food security and ensuring that the country remains stable, because without food, people will go on a rampage and people will certainly resort to violence, which will lead to social instability, which can have a devastating impact on law and order in the country.
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“It is for this reason that we have engaged with agriculture minister Thokozile Didiza and we really want to commend her for her role in taking our issues to Cabinet level so that people can understand the need for a more adaptive approach in terms of applying load shedding to the agriculture sector,” he said.
On meeting with Eskom on Tuesday, Van der Rheede says they were looking to discuss the extent to which the power utility can accommodate a more lenient approach in applying load shedding stages in the agriculture sector.
“Currently the load shedding schedule is very rigid and it has an impact on irrigation, the slaughtering of livestock, as well as an impact on cold storage facilities, and ultimately if you cannot keep products refrigerated… highly perishable products such as milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, then the sector stands to lose millions.
“More so this will also push up food inflation and all other kinds of costs, and at the end of the day, it’s the consumer that ultimately bears the brunt of cost increases as a result of load shedding,” said Van der Rheede.
By Monday this week, the country had been experiencing stage 6 of rolling blackouts for the fifth consecutive day.
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He said it is, therefore, important that a solution is found for the load shedding crisis.
He also cautioned that if there is no food, many more people lose their jobs and the country risks losing its export status.
Chairperson of the South African Agri Initiative (SAAI) Dr Theo de Jager says farmers are in dire straits due to load shedding, especially irrigation farmers.
“There is a minimum of millimeters (mm) of irrigation which they need to put down and very often load shedding schedules simply do not allow for that and then they lose part of the harvest.
“There are farmers who said to us if we can’t make a plan by this Friday, they will no longer have something to harvest, or they will lose 50% of the harvest because they need to utilise the opportunity to put water down on the crops and they need to focus it now only on the smaller portions of their fields,” said De Jager.
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Part of the deal many farmers are requesting from Eskom, according to De Jager, is not to implement load shedding for four hours in the morning and another four hours in the afternoon, but rather to allow them eight hours of uninterrupted power. This will allow them to complete their irrigation and go through the whole cycle.
Meanwhile an irrigation farmer from the Free State, Kempen Nel, says adding to farmers’ woes has been the scorching weather conditions that have been experienced in several parts of the country over the last few days.
Nicol Jansen Osoon, deputy president of Agri SA and an irrigation farmer in the Northern Cape, says the situation there is dire.
“From the eastern parts of the province where it’s mainly cash crops, the availability of electricity is not enough to pump enough water to supply the cash crops with the amount of water that’s needed during this time of year.
“Furthermore, we have an enormous heatwave and that contributes to more demands for the plants and therefore, it’s really impossible to give the crops enough water. And with stage 6 load shedding of up to 8-10 hours without electricity, it is not possible to utilise the 14 hours that is left 100%, because time is wasted on going to water source and starting the pumps,” said Osoon.
Osoon says if a farmer only has 10 hours per day to irrigate, there is a significant shortfall in the amount of water plants require.
“Currently the demand of the smaller crops is about 45mm per week, and those are crops at a more progressive stage and a higher water demand is up to 60mm per day. Therefore, it’s impossible to give enough water for the crops.
“If you go to the lower Orange River where you have citrus, pecan nuts, then it’s the same situation where daytime temperatures ranges between 42 and 46 degrees Celsius, and that heat makes even more impossible to give enough water to the crops,” said Osoon.
He said farmers there find themselves in a situation of distress where damages at this stage are inevitable, adding that they are hoping for a reduction in the load shedding stages.
“Farmers also claim that load shedding has done a lot of damage to their equipment, they have to replace pumps and one of the biggest problems is the cost of load shedding.
“Farmers usually pump their water during the cheaper hours. We have special rates during evening hours when the pressure on the grid is less, and farmers use these nightly hours to do the pumping and during the day when the tariffs are higher, they do not utilise it,” said De Jager.
However, farmers now no longer have a choice but to pump water when the load shedding schedule allows, adding additional un-budgeted costs, resulting in many farmers battling to make ends meet.
Nel says with the 120 hours of water they receive per week, they have been losing 75 hours, thanks to the stage 6 load shedding which was implemented last week.
Eskom announced on Monday that stage 6 would be reduced to stage 4 during 5am and 4pm on Tuesday before being ramped up again to stage 5.
ALSO READ: Slight relief for South Africans as load shedding is reduced
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“This year has already been a big problem and we (farmers) feel Eskom does not understand that we cannot run our day-to-day operations without water,” Nel explained.
“As farmers we have also been forced to look for alternatives, such as borrowing money from the banks to get us off the electricity grid. If we can’t get assistance from Eskom, the agriculture sector will be crippled and there are farmers who are also considering closing shop. The crisis is just unbearable,” said Nel.
He said getting the country’s 17 500 hectares of highly productive land off the grid is quite an expensive exercise which could cost farmers in the region of R1.4 billion.
Nel estimates farmers have only two to three years left until the load shedding crisis completely destroys the sector.
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