The SA Canegrowers Association will present the outcomes of a recently concluded cotton diversification pilot project to the Sugarcane Value Chain Masterplan Task Team on diversification.
"These findings represent an exciting new avenue for the sugar industry to explore in pursuit of viable diversification options for canegrowers in South Africa," the organisation states.
The successful pilot project follows a new crop diversification report that was commissioned by SA Canegrowers in October 2020, which identified potentially suitable alternative crops that could be grown by canegrowers to help ensure the survival of the sugar industry.
Confirming the findings of the report, the project showed that small-scale farmers situated near a cotton gin can benefit from diversifying into irrigated cotton as a break out crop, the organisation notes.
Break out crops are secondary crops grown to interrupt the repeated sowing of cane as part of crop rotation.
The project was part of an International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling (ISEAL) initiative to close the financing gap for small-scale farmers. The World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa provided funding and Cotton South Africa provided mentorship.
As part of the pilot, SA Canegrowers board member Mfundo Msimango dedicated 1 ha of farmland in Mpumalanga to the project. Planting took place in December 2020.
By April, 95% of the crop was mature, while the last of the cotton was picked in June.
In total, Msimango harvested 22 bales of cotton or about 3 857 kg of cotton. At a price of R6.99/kg, this brought in an additional R27 000 in revenue.
The diversification report notes that new genetically modified varities of cotton could increase yields to 4 000 kg to 5 000 kg per hectare, and could bring in up to R34 950 in revenue per hectare.
SA Canegrowers says the pilot project provided crucial lessons for cane farmers wishing to diversify their operations.
First, cotton is ideal for use as a rotational crop as it promotes both weed and disease control during the break crop or fallow period.
Another benefit of cotton farming is the low barrier to entry. Cotton has lower start-up costs than alternative orchard crops, in particular. Cotton gins often lease equipment to farmers, ensuring new entrants need not buy all the equipment they need upfront.
However, critical to diversifying into cotton is proximity to a cotton gin. This is why the northern irrigated regions of Mpumalanga have been identified as the most suitable area, as there is already a cotton gin on the Makathini Flats. Moreover, a Mpumalanga cooperative has formed a partnership with the National Empowerment Fund to establish its own local gin.
In terms of skills, cane and cotton are similar enough to enable farmers to easily adapt to cotton farming.
Further, compared with cane farming, cotton requires less tilling, less fertiliser and cheaper chemicals, resulting in lower costs.
Because harvesting machinery is also very expensive, cotton harvesting is labour intensive, with most cotton in South Africa handpicked. While cane remains more labour intensive than cotton, cotton can provide supplementary income and employment in rural communities, SA Canegrowers notes.
It points out, however, that many small-scale growers in South Africa farm on an average of 5 ha and that fallowing just 1 ha would cut 20% of their income, which is why many small-scale growers cannot afford to rotate their crops.
"To assist small-scale growers, government should consider releasing more land to them to enable them to practice rotational farming and reap the many benefits this brings," the organisation suggests.
This diversification pilot is one of the projects SA Canegrowers has participated in with the aim of identifying opportunities for canegrowers to diversify their crops and sources of income.
Earlier this year SA Canegrowers also presented findings on its research, with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels demonstrating the feasibility of diverting cane to the production of sustainable aviation fuels to build a local biofuels industry.
"SA Canegrowers will continue to work on crop and value chain diversification to ensure that canegrowers are less vulnerable to global shocks and demand side pressures on the industry.
"We look forward to presenting more constructive proposals to the industry and government as we continue to build innovative and strategic partnerships to take advantage of opportunities that will ensure the future sustainability of the industry," the organisation states.