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Eastern Cape Agriculture Expands & Diversifies

26 March 2018
EC Farmers Diversify to Wine Farming

Eastern Cape farmers diversify and expand, decreasing farming risks

In today’s agriculture world, there are two ways of decreasing farming risks; these are growing a variety of crops, as well as planting in different areas. Citrus farmers from the Eastern Cape and other provinces did both. Some land has been purchased near Robertson to diversify production and bring about new crops. Glenneis Kriel discussed the new adventure with Hannes Jourbert and his son in law, Janie Rabie.

Eastern Cape Farmers Head West to Diversify

Eastern Cape citrus farmer, Hannes Jourbet, has planted a large amount (34ha) of crop to table grapes under shade nets near Robertson, to diversify his operation.

More and more citrus farmers from the Eastern Cape are purchasing land in the Western Cape, located near villages such as Roberston, as well as Citrusdal.

Hannes Joubert is one of these people. He is the owner of Habata, a massive producer of cucurbits, citrus and vegetables located in the Sundays River Valley, who purchased a farm near Robertson in September 2015.

Hannes believes that the move to this area will enable farmers to increase and spread production, reduce climatic risks over a vast geographic region and grow a variety of different crops.

Hannes elaborated by saying, “The Western Cape is highly attractive because of its citrus blackspot-free status, making it one of only a couple of regions in the country allowed to export citrus to the highly lucrative US market. The diversification has also reduced my market risks, by allowing me to incorporate new crops in my product range”.

Robertson reached out to Hannes due to the availability of labour during winter, when the majority of the summer fruit and wine grapes come to an end.  

A contributing factor was his son-in-law, Jan Rabie, managing a farm 30km away, near Nuy, on behalf of him and his wife, Christie.

“Starting a farming operation in another region is an expensive business and involves high risk,” said Hannes.

“I wouldn’t have risked it if I didn’t have someone capable, trustworthy and passionate about the enterprise to look after my interest.” he continued.

The affordability of the area attracted Hannes. While prices in the Sundays River Valley range from R400 000- R500 000/ha, land under vines in the Robertson Valley is about R300 000/ha.

Grape Farming

Economies of Scale

Hannes was on the brink of purchasing a small farm, however, landed up buying Le Grand Chasseur at the foot of the Sandberg, located 15km outside of Robertson.

The 1300ha property contains 350ha of arable land, where 330ha was under wine grape production when he bought the farm.

An application to expand by 350ha has been filed and is waiting for the results of an environmental impact study.

“It made sense to buy Le Grand Chasseur because economies of scale are so much better when you buy a large farm,” Hannes said.

“It also solved the problem of future expansion. Neighbouring farms seldom reach the market, so expanding production from a smallish farm usually entails strange, often ineffective, logistics. With Le Grand Chasseur, there’s a lot of room for expansion in one location.”

Improving Agricultural Efficiencies

Jan believes that people in the Western Cape think that the new entrants to farming in the area are replacing wine grape vines with citrus trees, but this is not true.

110ha of vines had been removed, as it was no longer economically viable.

The wine grape production has increased from 10t/ha before 2015 to 22t/ha in 2016, and water usage has decreased, from 6 000m³/ha to 4 500m³/ha, helping save water in an already dire Western Cape.

Jan firmly believes that the figure can be further reduced, as he is currently gaining yields of 30t/ha on his farm, near Nuy, using 4 000m³/ha to 4 500m³/ha of water, depending on the cultivar produced.

The increase in production and improved water efficiency is due to better management practices.

“Instead of using a blanket fertiliser and irrigation programme, we adapted the programmes according to the requirements of different vineyards at different stages of production”, noted Jan.

“For example, we take soil and leaf samples to determine nutritional shortages, and use continuous loggers and physically dig holes to monitor soil moisture levels. The same is done in our citrus and table grape orchards.”

Le Grand Chasseur has a large enough cellar; it can produce 3.8 million litres of wine from 5 000/t of grapes. It’s then sold to Constellation Brands, Distell and Origin Wine. Companies either bottle or sell the wine in bulk to different export destinations.

“The market for wine has been relatively flat for some time, but local demand is showing some improvement,” says Jan. “To me, wine grapes are like having a conservative investment portfolio: you’re not going to make a quick buck out of it, but the risks are lower than for a more aggressive growth portfolio.”

Grape Production Under Shade Nets

Since the removal of the vines, 40ha has been gained for new wine grapes. Another 34ha of table grapes have been planted under shade nets, while 70ha of citrus will still be planted.

“The Robertson Valley is ideal for table grape production because of its low rainfall of roughly 250mm per year, but production never really took off because of the windy conditions. The use of shade nets as wind protection has made it possible to produce table grapes in regions where it might have been totally inconceivable a few years ago,” Jan explains.

"Importantly, the nets are white. With table grape production, you don’t want the vines to be shaded. You want them to get as much light as possible for optimal flower formation.

It’s, therefore, better to use white nets instead of coloured nets that might block out some light.”

Wine Farming

Grape Production Advice

The thought of producing table grapes was frightening at first. However, Jans co-workers and family in the industry offered him advice, as well as their farming expertise. Anton Viljoen, Jan’s uncle, a member of the Grape Alliance and also the owner of Denau Boerdery, is a leader in the table grape industry, offered great advice.

Jan has gotten advice from various consultants to ensure that he reaches the full genetic potential of the cultivars planted.

“We’re pruning and feeding these vines to produce their first harvest 18 months after establishment and to produce a full commercial yield the year after that. The cultivars, including Crimson Seedless, Sweet Sapphire, Sweet Globe, Sweet Joy and Autumn Crisp, are generally high-yielding late varieties that will allow us to supply the market towards the tail-end of the season when supplies start to taper off,” he explains.

Despite table grapes return being slightly lower than those of citrus, Jan views it as an effective diversification option. There is also a high demand for table grapes, causing reasonably good costs, and the vines can be manipulated to produce grapes from the second year. It takes four years for citrus trees to produce commercial yields.

The price of wine grape vineyards, as well as citrus, is around R200 000/ha per case, while it is about R450 000/ha for table grapes under nets.

Setting up citrus under nets will increase costs to R400 000/ha. Only soft citrus like Mandarin, Tango and Clementine have been planted. Lemons were excluded as the economic risks were high.

Water Efficiency

There is a misconception that the planting of citrus in Robertson dramatically affects water resources and supply levels. Jan pointed out that every farm has a particular water quota, and it won’t be increased.

“We’re doing everything we can to use our water as efficiently as possible, starting with soil preparation and going on to the actual production of fruit.

The soil is ripped 1,2m deep to allow the roots of the trees to grow deep in search of water and soil nutrients, and to prevent any layers from obstructing the movement of water,” he explains.

Orchards are divided depending on soil analysis profiles. Instead of watering all orchards to the same extent, over or under supplying water in the process, the farmer can provide each block with the correct volume.

Citrus farms can install only drip irrigation to use less than 50% of the water required by micro-sprinkler systems.  

Composts can be added to better the soil’s water-holding capacity, lessen water evaporation and keep the land cool and moist. Water used for flushing the irrigation is later used for watering.

Leveraging Advantages

Plans are in motion for nets to be put up over Le Grand Chasseur’s citrus orchards.

“We’re currently putting up nets over the orchards in the Sundays River Valley. They greatly improve fruit quality, resulting in better pack-outs. They also help reduce the impact of climate fluctuations, with temperatures under the nets usually being milder than outside temperatures. So the nets help protect fruit from frost damage,” he explains.

Jan plans to have nets erected over Le Grand Chasseur’s citrus orchards by spring next year.

Hannes also plans to take full advantage of each area and integrate both. Fruit produced on Le Grand Chasseur will be sold to market through established business channels, and the new Western Cape opportunity will open doors for produce from the Sundays River Valley.

A packing facility will be constructed on Le Grand Chasseur by 2020, however until then; fruit will be packed at other farmers’ facilities.