LUSAKA (Reuters) - Erratic rainfall has delayed planting of Zambia's staple maize crop that feeds the impoverished southern African nation, raising the possibility of a poor harvest after several bumper seasons, the agriculture minister said on Thursday.
But he said the country should have adequate reserves to see it through any rough patch.
"The beginning has not been good. Although it's too early to tell how things will unfold, we are very concerned. The rainfall pattern has been very patchy," Agriculture Minister Emmanuel Chenda told Reuters.
The planting season in Zambia usually begins with the rains which herald the start of the southern hemisphere summer season in October or November.
"As late as December 30 some people had not planted but in Zambia maize should normally be knee-high at that time. We saw a lot of people planting in December when they should be weeding," Chenda said.
Zambia has been reaping bumper yields, improving food security and lifting economic growth in a country where much of the population is comprised of rural peasants.
Higher food output has been attributed to state subsidies to farmers in the form of fertilizer and seed but subsistence farming in Zambia, like in much of Africa, relies heavily on rain in the absence of irrigation infrastructure.
Chenda, a minister in the government of populist President Michael Sata who was swept to power late last year, said the subsidies had been increased this growing season.
"We have increased the number of farmers receiving subsidised inputs under the farmer input support programme to about 1 million from about 800,000 last year," he said.
"In terms of food security we are very safe because we have increased our maize reserves from 300,000 tonnes to 600,000 tonnes," he added.
Zambia's maize production in the 2010/2011 season was projected to rise to over 3 million tonnes from the 2.8 million tonnes produced in the 2009/2010 season, a crop forecast showed last year.
Farmers have reported that some of the maize in regional breadbasket South Africa has also been planted late but growing conditions have generally been favourable, though the country is importing yellow maize as it seems to have overcommitted to export markets.