The 2018/19 season proved to be very interesting for growers in the Eston mill area. Average yields were good, but the low RV price more than off set any gains from these yields. Cane farmers are definitely feeling the pinch, resulting in a somewhat depressed mood out in the countryside. This has led to growers looking more and more to SA Canegrowers to provide direction in these trying times.
Rainfall for the period January 2018 to December 2018 was measured at 683.1 mm which is significantly lower than the 2016/17 (866.9 mm) and 2017/18 (916 mm) seasons. The impact of the approximately 25% decline in the rainfall from the previous year is a concern for the 2019/20 crop unless the situation improves early in 2019. For the 2018/19 season, the Midlands south region produced an above average quality crop. A 38-week crush plan for the Eston mill started on 13 March, 2018 and closed on 2 December, 2019. The total crop for the region was 1 558 674 tons with 1 229 689 tons crushed at the Eston mill and the balance being diverted to the Sezela and Noodsberg mills. The inward diversions from Sezela and uMzimkhulu totalled 1 081 tons. The approximate area under cane recorded was 37 445ha with approximately 17 382ha harvested over the 2018/19 season. The yield per hectare for 2018/19 was approximately 89.67 tons which was marginally lower than the previous season’s yield. The cane quality statistics for the 2018/19 season were sucrose 13.79 %, fibre 14.76%, non-sucrose 2.14% and RV 12.64%. The overall time efficiency for the season was 86%, an improvement from the previous seasons: 2016/17 at 81.11% and 2017/18 at 84.03%. The Eston Mill crushed very poorly at the start of the season but recovered well to meet the 38-week crush plan. For the first time since the 2014 season the Eston mill was able to crush over 40 000 tons per week for about four weeks of the season
An amendment to the Sugar Act that allows for other institutions to operate as grower representative bodies led to the industry holding a membership sign-up process early in 2018. This posed a challenge as small-scale grower membership numbers for SA Canegrowers in the Eston area resulted in the Mill Cane Committee (MCC) which is a small-scale grower (SSG) structure affiliated to SA Canegrowers having to reconstitute itself. Initially, industry communication and initiatives to support SA Canegrowers’ small-scale grower membership during this period were disrupted.
The SA Canegrowers regional team together with some of the area’s small-scale grower leaders helped in setting up the new Mill Cane Committee and local associations structures in the Umbumbulu area. With structures in place, communications, operational matters and developmental matters could then be managed efficiently and effectively for the benefit of our small- scale growers and the region. The South African Sugar Research Institute (SASRI) hosted a one year modular course in sugarcane agriculture in Eston. The course was held on one day of the month for ten months and attended by 25 people including managers, foremen, growers and students. A request was received from a commercial grower in the Eston district to create a health and safety handbook for growers in the Midlands and possibly the entire industry. The handbook is complete and currently under review by the SA Canegrowers’ management team. The SA Canegrowers’ regional team also organised a mill tour for members which was very well received by growers and the millers alike. The commercial grower seedcane assistance scheme was an initiative led by a commercial grower and assisted by small-scale grower leaders. The SA Canegrowers regional office provided the much-needed seedcane to some small-scale growers in the Umbumbulu region. Approximately 30 tons of seedcane was cut and delivered to four small-scale growers.
Eston growers have managed in some way to mitigate against the declining RV price over the past two seasons by producing consistently above average yields of approximately 90 tons per hectare coupled with consistent RV yields. The declining RV Price coupled with the erratic fuel price and exchange rate along with the pressure from interest rates and VAT increases during the year has added considerable strain on margins. The newer varieties, sound management practises, lower incidences of pests and diseases and effective extension services are other mitigating factors against a declining RV price.