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Farmers encouraged to proactively manage crops to protect rooibos industry






In an industry that boasts a R600 million turnover, and exports that have quadrupled over the past decade, it is not surprising that rooibos farmers of the Western Cape wonder if this growth can be sustained or if the threat of climate change is a valid concern.


According to the South African Rooibos Council, the industry provides 4 500 jobs and while recent reports have speculated that 2012 will be another successful year, doubts are now being raised regarding how long this boom is likely continue. According to Rooibos Limited, the price and demand of this specialised crop are strong but anxiety about future weather patterns remains.


Is climate change a legitimate threat to rooibos farmers?


Johan van den Berg, specialised crop insurance manager with Santam, SA’s largest short-term insurer, explains there is a difference between climate change and climate variability.


“Climate change is the permanent departure from the average and it is mainly due to human causes. Climate variability, on the other hand, is a normal variation. Changes must be observed over a very long period of time, more than a few years, to determine future patterns,” says van den Berg. “Generally speaking however, we are finding that production risk is on the increase, whether it is due to climate change or climate variability.”


The 2011 Eden Study, undertaken by Santam in partnership with the CSIR, University of Cape Town and WWF, demonstrated that there are risk drivers, or causes, which can already be influenced to reduce our risk and improve climate-resilience of communities. The study also shows that the proactive management of ecological systems has the potential to offset most of the future increases in risk related to climatic changes.


However, rooibos is a specialised crop that only flourishes in dry and sandy soils, specifically those found in the Cedarberg region of the Western Cape. Despite numerous attempts to recreate this natural habitat and grow the plant in the US and Australia, each effort has been met with failure.


Several reports last month suggested hotter, drier conditions for this region over the next several decades. Which then begs the question, is it possible for a crop as selective as this one to thrive, or even survive, irrespective of whether the changes in weather patterns are attributed to short or long term effects? How can farmers mitigate the threat, proactively manage the crop, and protect their investment?


What can farmers do to mitigate this threat?


Van den Berg suggests the best approach to improve long-term crop sustainability is by mitigating as much risk as possible and by proactively managing this intricate ecological area. Santam suggests the following actions:


  1. Select the most suitable areas and keep away from marginal production areas. 
  2. Selection for better plant genetics must also get attention, although this may not be as simple with rooibos compared to crops like maize or wheat. 
  3. Improve the process of establishing new crops by optimising cultivation techniques. Conservation farming is a new avenue that can improve water holding capacity of the very sandy soils where rooibos is produced.
  4. A mulch cover can greatly reduce water losses and also keep soil temperatures lower. It can also enhance the symbiotic effect with micro-organisms in the soil. 
  5. Farmers can also approach insurers to provide cover for “acts of God”. For example, there is a fire product currently available for the industry.

“The problem in planning for climate change is whether it is part of natural variability or real change and if it is real change, what will be the extent?” concludes van den Berg. “Despite the unanswered questions in predicting climatic patterns, however, every farmer can and should take decisive actions to mitigating potential upsets damage to their crop.”

Source: FTI Consulting
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