Words and photos courtesy of Rex Fey
It’s the 14th January 2016, and thunder is rumbling in the distance. I reckon runaway fires could be a real problem today. Runaway fires in January you ask? Yes in January! Here in Kokstad we are having a drought of the brown kind. I hear lots of talk about the green drought in other areas, well there is not a blade of green grass here other than my pastures that I have been irrigating flat out. As of today 15th January 2016 we have had 168 mm from July 1st until now. The last rain of over 20 mm was in the beginning of April. Our biggest rain this season has been 15mm, and bear in mind that the 168 mm is measured by a weather station which records all the pathetic amounts of less than 1 mm that most farmers wouldn’t bother recording. We are well on track for our driest season in our 25 year record but there’s still a long way to go until June.
I have long had a fascination with the weather and as a little kid my favourite thing was watching the weather. I remember the arguments I used to have with my old man about the weather and storms in particular. Imagine this little 6 year old arguing with his father about the nature of a particular storm cloud and whether it would rain or not. I chuckle to myself as look at my baby boy and wonder if he will be as opinionated as his father is and both his grandfathers. As I have mentioned my old man said not to believe anything anyone said if it didn’t make sense and this applied to him too. We still to this day enjoy a good argument on anything ranging from something stupid like where exactly true north is, or the situation in the middle east. Here below follow a few pictures taken over the last month of the farm in the drought.
For my own interest I managed to get my hands on some longterm rainfall records from several farmers in our area and some from further north in Natal. I also found a total average annual rainfall for the whole of South Africa which gives an indication of how widespread this drought is. There are several things which are abundantly clear to me when I look at these rainfall records.
1. The effects of El Nino on our local weather is not well understood. Some El Ninos result in drought, others in floods, and others seem to have no effect at all. However there does seem to be a general pattern in that the strongest El Nino years result in abnormal weather.
2. Our summer rainfall comes mainly in thunderstorms and so can vary hugely from one location to the next, particularly in a dry season. Its not uncommon for one farmer to get 50 mm of rain and his neighbours a few km away to get nothing. That one storm can be the difference between an good season and a poor season. A very good example of the randomness of our weather is that the driest season recorded in Franklin’s 50 year record was 2013/14! That’s what you call a localised drought. There were several farmers, all neighbours, who just seemed to miss all the storms. This was while the rest of East Griqualand had a good season.
3. There appears to be a significant increase in rainfall over the last 30 years. This increase is largely due to a few very wet seasons occurring from the late 80’s onwards, rather than us having fewer dry years. In other words it seems that the wet seasons have got wetter and the dry years, well they are still dry. Maybe the current drought, if it continues will be a regression to the mean, or maybe the climate has genuinely changed for the better. Climate change, whether human induced or sue to natural cycles, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is also important to note that 50 or 80 years of rainfall records is a very short time to try find any trends in the data. Further more the starting point of the dataset can give one the illusion of a trend that actually is non-existent over a longer time-line. An example would be if your dataset started in the late 70’s and ended last season you would have a dramatic positive trend, whereas if it started in the mid 80’s and ended today the trend would probably be negative. One has to be very careful in drawing too many conclusions from such a short rainfall record.
4. Droughts in the past have tended to be a cluster of poor years following each other with the final year being the real crunch, rather than a once off extremely dry year. Some areas have been dry for 2 or 3 seasons now whereas we on our farm are in our first dry season. If the past bad droughts are anything to go by then we may have another bad season or two ahead.
5. Rainfall records alone don’t tell an accurate picture of how bad a drought is. This drought has come with extremely hot weather which had made the situation much worse. In 2014/15 we had 680 mm with 9 rainfall events of over 20 mm which is not a lot. This season we have had 168 mm (July to 15 Jan) and not one rain of over 20 mm. The last rain of over 20 mm was in July last year.
Why my scepticism around El Nino and it’s effects on our weather? I am an inquisitive farmer, not a climate scientists so excuse me if I am wrong. There have been 20 recorded El Nino events since 1950, that’s close on one in every 3 years being an El Nino year. The strongest ones are the ones I am most interested in. The strongest events recorded in order of increasing strength are 72/73, 92/93, 82/83, 2015/16, and 97/98.
Maybe I am misunderstanding something but it looks like if you use the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) to predict what a season will be like, well you have maybe a 50/50 chance of getting it right. My scepticism applies to Southern KZN only, and I am not qualified to say whether this applies to the rest of the summer rainfall area. I tried to get some rainfall records from further afield from the SA Weather service and I was not granted access. Let’s just say I am sceptical of a weather forecast longer than about 3 days. 3 months is becoming a lottery, and to try and predict 3 decades ahead like climate scientists try do, is smoking some good stuff!
The current drought is no ordinary drought and is undoubtedly an extremely rare occurrence. The drought has also not yet broken so who knows how bad it will get. I hope not much more, because the consequences of what’s going on now will be felt by every citizen of this country. What makes this drought so much more serious than previous droughts is the fact that over the last few decades, farmers have been pushing the limits with how much land they irrigate and the building of dams has not kept apace with the growth in irrigation area. We are no exception in our farming business. We still have some water in our dam, which should last another few months if we are careful with our use. We had what we thought was a strong borehole that could irrigate about a 3rd of our total area, which would make us almost drought proof, but for reasons unknown, the borehole is now delivering only 10% of what it did in the last big drought. Thats quite a big curve-ball that’s been thrown at us in the last few days, to say the least. So there has to be a serious rethink of how we will get through this drought.
The town of Kokstad is on servere water restrictions and is only days away from running out completely. The only way for the town to get water will then be to tell farmers up river that they have to stop irrigating as human needs take preference over crops. Thank goodness we are downstream of the town and have no other irrigation between is and the ocean.
Many farmers will cry out for government drought aid which I don’t believe is a good thing. It’s tragic to see farmers cattle dying and crops dying, but these are the risks one faces in farming. Farming is and has always been a risky business, and one needs to gear your system to survive these bad years. We may also be one of the victims of the drought if it carries on like this for a few more months, but ultimately we will have been victims to our own appetite for risk. The tax payers should not foot the bill for us farmers who have over extended our water resources or borrowed too much money. We have borrowed a lot of money for building a milk powder factory which is now complete, but the last thing we can afford it to have to buy in heaps of feed to keep my cows milking. I have been conservative with my stocking rate and so I have not yet had to buy any roughage onto my farm, but even our large dam and conservative stocking rate may prove to be insufficient to weather this drought. Time will tell but through all the hard times opportunities will arise. I find it an absolutely fascinating time to be farming.
The lessons learned in this drought will be hard ones, but you have to take it on the chin and look for the positives in any situation you are dealt, and importantly be adaptable. At the end of the day there’s no point in getting depressed about the weather, plan for it, be adaptable and stay positive. Us farmers are not martyrs and we don’t do it for some ultruistic reason to feed the world. We do it for profit, and we are some of the few people who actually enjoy doing what we do for a living. It’s more fun loosing money in farming than in any other profession that I know.