But altered weather patterns in the region, which experts say are caused by climate change, are creating uncertainty about the best time to plant crops, forcing farmers to choose between their own observations and judgment and the sometimes conflicting advice of expert meteorologists.
Subsistence famers such as Thabisani Gama of Gwanda, a village about 100 km (60 miles) north of Bulawayo, know that a poor decision could put their own livelihoods at risk and further weaken Zimbabwe’s economy.
The Zimbabwean government has been pressing farmers to increase local food production to reduce food imports, and the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union has also called on them to increase their maize and cereal crops.
“We cannot afford to ignore these early rains as we can lose out if this is (indeed) the onset of the season,” said Gama.
Like many smallholders who cannot afford irrigation schemes, Gama has to rely on rainfall for his crops.
But the early rainfall, welcomed by farmers, was downplayed by the country’s meteorological department, which said the precipitation did not herald the rainy season.
The meteorologists’ warning that farmers should not begin planting their crops has left many confused.
‘NO ONE KNOWS ANYMORE’
“No one now knows about the cycle (of rainfall) anymore, and even the people who tell us these things are not sure themselves,” said Gama.
He is anxious to plant and harvest enough maize to sell to the country’s Grain Marketing Board after failing to meet his target last year. That poor harvest was exacerbated by flooding that hit parts of southern Africa.
Zimbabwe Commercial Famers Union President Donald Khumalo has urged smallholders like Gama to “contribute towards the growth of our Gross Domestic Product through farming activities and maximise maize production and other cereals to ensure that the country does not plunge into famine.”
Khumalo said the country needs to avoid reliance on maize imports from South Africa, Zambia and Malawi, which are already responding to food crises in East Africa.
Climate change experts from southern Africa wrote in a recent paper that vast areas of the region are experiencing rapid changes in their planting seasons, affecting the ability of countries to produce adequate harvests for their populations.
“A major problem for any adaptation initiative, particularly at the local level, is insufficient information about what to adapt to. This often results from a lack of awareness of how the climate has changed in the past,” the experts noted.
Farmers traditionally begin preparing the land for planting in October, and the early rains were enough to convince many farmers that the planting season had arrived.
But their eagerness is at odds with the advice of Meteorological Service Department officials, whose message to farmers is, “Not so fast.”
Senior meteorological officer Jonathan Chifuna said that despite the rains seen across the country, the time was not right for farmers to sow their seeds, and that it would be risky to do so.
“Because of the high temperatures that the country has been experiencing, the expected storms can be violent in terms of high wind, lightning and hail,” Chifuna said.
He called on farmers to work closely with weather and farming experts for advice on when to begin planting.
Other experts agreed that farmers should listen to and follow weather bulletins, even if in the past they could study the skies on their own without deferring to experts.
“There is need for inclusion now unlike in the past when folks used indigenous knowledge systems to study the weather,” said Jennifer Shoriwa of the Zimbabwe Regional Environment Organisation (ZERO).
NEED FOR EXPERT ADVICE
“Farmers need the presence of experts right in their backyards for advice, or else we will have cycles of bad harvests across the country because no one told farmers when not to plant,” Shoriwa said.
Since independence in 1980, the Zimbabwean government has posted agricultural extension officers in rural areas to give advice on farming techniques. But faced with the challenges of climate change, farmers must rely increasingly on radio and television weather updates.
Some farmers in Gwanda, however, complain they do not all have access to radio and television.
In 2010 some farmers lost crops in heavy rains that they had planted early without consulting meteorological experts.
Without such advice, according to Shoriwa, farmers risk wasting already scarce resources.
“The challenge remains whether all farmers heed these calls,” Shoriwa said.
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.