*This column first appeared in Business Day on 16 February 2017

Agriculture plays a crucial role in the broader economy, constituting about 6% of South Africa’s total labour force.  This is double that of the noisiest industry, mining, and almost at par with the transport industry. The recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey by Statistics South Africa revealed that employment in the agricultural sector grew by 4%, or 38 000 jobs, in the fourth quarter of 2016, from the previous quarter, putting the sector’s total labour force at 919 000.

The areas that showed significant jobs growth were livestock (mainly driven by increased red meat slaughter), horticulture, crop farming, game farming and ocean and coastal fishing. Livestock, horticulture and crop farming are the largest contributors to agriculture’s total labour force, employing 64%.

Collectively, livestock, horticulture and crop farming saw a 12% quarterly growth in labour participation. In addition to increased red meat slaughter, there was increased activity in summer crop areas. This comes after the area planted to summer crops grew 19% year-on-year to 3.88-million hectares.

South Africa slaughtered close to 300 000 head of cattle in December 2016, according to data from Red Meat Levy Admin, a 22% increase on the previous month. It underscores the demand for meat during the festive season and as well as higher feed costs, which made it a difficult for some farmers to maintain their herds. These figures for cattle slaughter are only for the formal market and a similar trend is generally observed in informal markets.

Typically, African cultures in South Africa slaughter cattle for different celebrations during the festive season, such as weddings and Thanksgiving. Some households, particularly the royal ones, slaughter as many as 10 cows during the festive season in areas such as the Eastern Cape. The unaccounted figures for informal market slaughter underscore the contribution of the agricultural sector to the South African economy and the labour market.

There were some subsectors that recorded job losses, such as forestry, logging services and fisheries (fish hatcheries and fish farms). To some extent, this shows the aftermath of the 2015-16 drought. Worth acknowledging, however, is that the optimism in the labour market could be short-lived, particularly in horticulture, as some participants might have been seasonal labour.

Consistent with the job growth developments and also a key driver is the forecast of favourable weather conditions across the production areas of the country. As a result, crops such as maize are set to record a significant rebound in 2017. Recent estimates from the Agricultural Business Chamber show that South Africa’s 2016/17 total maize production could reach 11.9-million tonnes, a 53% annual increase. This is on the assumption the country will receive consistent rainfall through the summer season.

The armyworm outbreak in certain provinces remains a key risk that could potentially change this optimistic view. However, there is cause for optimism that the country is well positioned to control this pest, since South Africa’s maize crop is roughly 85% genetically modified (GM), pesticides are available and adequate technical assistance is available from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries and organised agriculture groups.

What could potentially add pressure on maize supply is an uptick in regional demand. In my column on 19 January 2017, I spelt out the maize production dynamics of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), stating that South Africa produces 42% of the region’s average 30-million tonnes of maize. Tanzania trails with an 18% share, Malawi with a 12% and Zambia with a 9%.

Two of the key regional maize producers are at risk due to the armyworm: Zambia and Malawi. Both produce maize that is not genetically modified, which puts them in a more precarious position than South Africa. In addition, a considerable volume of maize is produced by smallholder farmers in remote areas, which could slow the pesticides distribution. This will unfold over the coming months.

Against this background, the results in March of the Agbiz/IDC Agribusiness Confidence Index for the first quarter will give us a sense of whether agricultural firms share the optimistic outlook. The fourth quarter 2016 index survey showed they were still relatively optimistic, with the overall index at 55 points.

The agricultural sector is in a better position than in 2016 in terms of production and the labour market. With policy certainty and investments, the sector should continue to show more positive improvements over the foreseeable future.