The use of operational weather and climate information in farmer decision making exemplified for the South Western Free State, South Africa
Zuma-Netshiukhwi, Gugulethu N. C.
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This study demonstrates that participating commercial and resource poor farmers used weather forecasts and climate predictions for agriculture and other science-based agrometeorological advisories during most of the study period. The study took place in the south-western Free State, synonymously used in this study as Modder/Riet catchment, which encompasses two districts Motheo and Lejweleputswa. It was found that most farmers in the south-western Free State originally were not familiar with such agrometeorological products but relied on their experience and traditional knowledge for farming decision-making. Most commercial farmers, having more resources, performed better compared to the resource poor farmers. The thesis especially exemplifies case studies linking science-based products/advisories and problem solving in the agricultural production environment for various farmers, where applicable through extension intermediaries. This particularly contributed to increasing the useful operational applicability of weather science, climate science and various fields of agricultural sciences. This must be seen as a contribution to science itself. The analytical results from questionnaires conducted in 2008 and 2012, with partly overlapping farmers, indicated that farmers in the south-western Free State differ in agricultural practices, interests, needs, experience and skills. Therefore, provision of tailor-made products for respectively crop production, animal husbandry, agroforestry and veld management is needed. Such agrometeorological information/advisories and, where people can assist to establish them, services can be disseminated by sending them to key communication outlets that are readily used by most people such as television, freely available local newspapers, local radio, bulletins, ward committees, extension forums and early warning committees. Cell phones can be used where the message may have limited size. The agrometeorological details should entail relevant and specific products that are directly useful to the farmers, and the latter should be able to interact with the sources. For all farmers in the Free State to embrace the use of agrometeorological knowledge and understanding would ideally require the interaction with well-trained extension agents. The study groups presented a very diverse situation in terms of experiences, challenges and needs that are related to their farming. The consequences of increasing climate variability needed greater emphasis as to farmer's ability to develop on-farm coping strategies and interventions. A successful farmer should understand the local trends in climate change and how agricultural outcomes are influenced. For example, the concept of response farming prepares the farmer to be aware of past and future climatic conditions and of the extent of increasing climate variability and related dangers and interventions to reduce vulnerabilities. The study also identified potential production areas for vegetables, herbs/spices, grain food, oil seeds, fruits and other products such as cotton and other fibers. Application of crop models such as Ehler's model and Eco-Crop 2 revealed the thermal and water requirements of these crops which are either fully or partially met in various parts of the catchment. Agricultural production in some parts of the study area can be optimal under supplementary irrigation and where soil requirements are suitable. Analyzed long term rainfall data assisted the farmers to select suitable crops for the area for diversification and sequential planting and determining the suitable planting dates and planting densities. Crop models were used to generate and evaluate a series of management practice scenarios. These outputs from the analyzed climate data and crop models were used to develop advisories that were tailor-made for the farmers. The decision trees handled in the last Appendix were also used to develop alternatives of agricultural management practices for different seasonal climatic conditions. The majority of farmers in the south-western Free State prior to this study regularly experienced devastating disasters that were weather and climate related, such as rainfall scarcity and rainfall irregularity, floods, untimely frost events, wind storms that also perpetuated destructive wildfires, outbreaks of diseases and pests, uncontrollable weeds which required intensive labour, severe drought conditions and overgrazed grazing lands. Weather forecasts and climate predictions for agriculture and other science-based agrometeorological advisories should be used to guide the farmers in terms of which response actions/decisions on agricultural activities to take under the above conditions and this way to reduce risks. Such agrometeorological products should serve a crucial role in strengthening sound decision-making and sustainable food security. Farmers used weather-related indicators in their traditional forecasting (mostly of rains and droughts) such as animal behavior, appearance of certain bird species, sprouting of aloe and other indigenous trees, accumulation of clouds, cloud types, appearance of certain insects, star constellation, shape of the moon and wind speed and direction. Agricultural decisions were made according to such traditional knowledge and understanding of environmental conditions of their local area obtained through years of experience. Understanding of the farmer's perception on climate is a critical step to facilitate effective communication on agrometeorological information/advisories/services. The tendency of scientists to develop knowledge for journals in the library that does not reach any end-users should be changed. It is therefore the responsibility of researchers and intermediaries to ensure that farmers have access to quality agrometeorological products for the betterment of agriculture in the Republic of South Africa at large. The study divulged a noticeable gap between the producers (universities/research institutes/weather services and other environmental services) and suppliers (broadcasters, extension officers, other intermediaries) of information/advisories/services while the users are in bitter need of agrometeorological products for improved on-farm decision-making. Participation of farmers in a series of monthly innovative workshops created a conducive environment for information exchange and training. It is advisable to conduct on-farm visits prior to the workshop/meeting days for proper preparations. This was to ensure that the monthly workshops were well-planned, productive and informative events. The manner in which this study was structured enhanced a bottom-up approach since it allowed participative approaches in close contact with the study groups, improving farming development by closing the gaps existing between developers, suppliers and users of agrometeorological knowledge and understanding. This study can recommend that participatory interaction with the farmers using focus groups, buzz questions, word of mouth, study groups and workshops allows two-way participation. This helps to understand the user's perception of the advisories, it allows a platform for constructive criticism that should lead to improvement of products and introduction of actual services, which are user friendly and translated into vernacular languages. The best outcome of this study was that farmers learnt new things and shared their information and experience. This farmer to farmer extension should be recommended for reaching the highest number of farmers in an area. The remaining challenge for agrometeorological advisories/services providers is to supply reliable and skilled forecasts/predictions and other science based information for agriculture through dissemination methods that suit the farmer such as already mentioned above.