Veg – peppers – 12 hectares under net + open field (used as a rotational crop when resting cane fields)
Sugarcane – 200 hectares
Sometimes I itch to let you know who our Jaff is and this is one of those occasions. I can tell you that interviewing him was a privilege. He is part of an iconic entrepreneurial family whose links extend to other countries and industries. So, although their experience in macadamias is limited to the past 6 years, their business and agricultural experience spans generations.
One of their conscious strategies is to diversify extensively. Coming from an operation that farms sugar, veg, citrus and other fruit, they have found macs to be a fairly simple crop thus far – in fact Jaff’s extensive input has almost suffocated the trees – ‘loving’ them to death is apparently possible, as we’ll cover when discussing fertilising and pruning …
Jaff is being cautious about expanding too aggressively into this crop; although the returns make it tempting, Jaff believes that the market will stabilise and those who have relied too heavily on macs will pay the price.
This business is farming macs within Global Gap parameters and requirements so that, when this becomes a mandatory component, they are already set up. Many of their other crops have to conform so it is simple to roll the system across the macs as well. Jaff is happy to share all that he knows about this and other areas of farming – his family often tells him that he is too open and shouldn’t share so much – Jaff laughs and says that it is who he is and he’s always open to help others whenever he can. It was wonderful to spend the day with someone who sees the value he has to share. That being said, Jaff’s macs are only starting to come into production – he knows he has made many mistakes and still has many more to make … hopefully we can learn from the ones he’s notched up already.
Jaff is in the Strydom Block area, indicated by the red shadow, about 8kms from the Komati Mill. From a geographic perspective (location of the two processing facilities – sugar and macs) it is easy to see why it makes more sense to farm sugarcane rather than macadamias.
This also explains why there are almost no mac farms in the area and that Jaff’s 6-year-old orchards are the oldest in the Komati/Malelane region. The distance to the mills and the current sugar price also clarifies why so many farmers from the Nelspruit area have moved out of sugarcane.
Back to our pioneering Jaff: I still wondered why there hasn’t been a little more mac investment in the area, especially when considering the highly lucrative appeal. He explained that, about 20 years ago, there was a huge mac farm here but it didn’t survive. It is commonly believed that, due to the high temperatures, the area must be unsuitable for macs but Jaff believes that inappropriate cultivar selection, management practices and youth of the industry were more likely responsible for the operation’s demise as the high humidity levels that come with the heat make it perfectly manageable for mac trees. In fact, Jaff believes this area will become popular for macs (once he’s proven they are feasible) and looks forward to seeing a processing plant go up closer to his side of the world.
Given that Jaff is a self-confessed newbie at this mac-farming gig, let’s take a closer look at the process he’s followed and what we can learn:
VARIETIES: Nobody really knew what would do well out here so Jaff planted a little bit of everything: it’s early days but everything seems to be doing well so far – Nelmak 2, A4, Beaumonts, 816, 741, 814, 842, 849. Jaff has learnt that the “8’s” do better in heavier soils so it is a good thing that his farms have highly diversified soils and he can plant accordingly. Orchard planning also considers cross pollination; Jaff wants to spread his harvest out over a longer time period by mixing the variety basket and in doing so, he makes sure that similarly timed flowerings are planted close enough to each other to be useful cross-pollenators. Spray requirements are also considered ie: ethapon needs to be sprayed in different strengths on different varieties so they will group accordingly.
Jaff does use herbicide to keep the floor under the trees clean and he has not been mulching. The tree trunks are painted with a 50% diluted mix of plain white PVA which protects them from the sun and from the herbicide.
“Be very careful with macs and nitrogen,” warns Jaff, “with my citrus, I am used to giving 30g of nitrogen every month to young trees. When I tried this with the macs, I killed a lot of them.” The mac trees were about 2 months old when Jaff learnt this lesson. Jaff cautions that, although macs look tough (hard, spikey leaves) they aren’t. He has learnt the hard way that, just like the extended protea family, they cannot handle too much love (fertiliser). Currently he is not applying anything for the first two weeks after planting and then he carefully administers a gentle slow release fertiliser.
Jaff is still finding his way as to how much the trees will tolerate and has started using some products from Metson. Watch this space …
PRUNING: This is another area where Jaff applied his citrus knowledge and general enthusiasm with disastrous results. When his mac orchards were 3 years old he pruned them … to such an extent that they are still recovering now, 3 years later. I was intrigued as I had heard that you cannot really prune a mac tree badly – Jaff laughs, “When you cut all the bearing branches off – that’s bad.” And in the spirit of sharing ALL his learnings, he has even had study groups visit the farm to witness his butcher job – and this shows me the real heart of this man; it’s one thing to share when everything is positive but it takes a special confidence and humility to share your epic failures. So, let’s learn – Jaff explains that he simply took the skirts up way too high and he cut windows so large that there were no bearing branches left.
On the up side, the experts tell him that the trees will be back to where they should be in another two years … and he hasn’t had to prune for the last 2 years!
MINIMISING UNSOUND KERNEL: What Jaff has managed to do well is deliver extraordinarily low unsound kernel. When I break out into spontaneous applause – so glad to have a reason to celebrate – he stops me by adding a disclaimer; “I don’t think it is because of anything I have done, I believe it is just that the area is so new to macs that the pests have not found us yet.” Despite that, Jaff is scouting vigilantly, “You never know when they will come, and I am not up for any more setbacks.” Because of his low unsound kernel records, Jaff has been asked, by fellow mac farmers, for his spray programme – he explains that the secret is that he doesn’t have one, and never will. He believes in scouting constantly, researching whatever he finds to establish exactly what it is and what the threat is. He then explores what options there are in terms of treatment – cost, risks, registrations etc and makes a decision based on whether the potential crop loss is greater than the cost to treat or should he continue to monitor the pest/disease until it becomes financially wise to take action. This is what happens at the front of the pack! Reality-based decision-making as opposed to following other people’s spray programmes.
Jaff wanted to add a friendly warning for his fellow farmers; “Pay careful attention to labels and registrations – Don’t use products incorrectly, whether that means spraying at the incorrect strength or on a crop for which it isn’t registered – if something goes wrong, you may end up with no claim to repair the damage to your trees.”
Jaff adds that there is a new threat worth keeping your eyes open for; the Macadamia Felted Coccid – it comes from Australia and was introduced to SA a few years ago via a nursery in Barberton. ARC-Nelspruit is apparently starting some research on it for the industry so hopefully we’ll be a little more familiar with remedies soon. If anyone would like further information, click here for an info sheet.
Macadamia Felted Coccid – to give an idea of actual size, the female adult is less than 1mm long. This new pest feeds on all parts of the macadamia tree, stunting growth and causing die-back.
False Coddling Moth is a regular in Jaff’s citrus orchards so he is well equipped and confident in controlling this threat.
He simply uses the same traps to monitor the mac orchards, at the same time, and treats when counts are too high with the FCM “tag”.
This contains a pheromone that sends their reproductive instincts into disarray. In the citrus, every tree gets one. In the macs, he’s placed one on every 7th tree as a precautionary deterrent.
The Department of Agriculture has also put traps into Jaff’s orchards as they are trying to establish how far into South Africa a Mozambiquan fly has come.
PLANTING: If there is an area that Jaff knows well, it’s planting – the result of being a relatively ‘late’ entrant into the crop and having much experience around him to draw on. So let’s pay careful attention to his learnings here:
Do your homework on the nursery you intend buying from. Some varieties are easier to source and so you have a choice of suppliers. Other varieties have lower grafting success rates and the suppliers are therefore fewer. During the nursery assessment, go TO the nursery, even if it means travelling. Inspect the whole operation. Pull trees out of the bags to assess the root health and condition (look out for foreign bugs like that MFC mentioned earlier). Be prepared to invest in quality trees and pay accordingly. For Jaff, this is a key ingredient to a successful operation down the line. He has seen too many farmers having to pull out 2-year-old orchards because of poor seedlings. Jaff has been sourcing his stock from Red Sun and, for the rarer varieties like 741, Easigrow.
Jaff does not recommend ridging unless there’s a good reason (ie: lack of soil depth).
In terms of soil prep, Jaff says it is just important to make sure the soil is loose.
Jaff is not committed to a set spacing yet. If he is reusing an existing orchard, like he has just taken out some grapefruit and will be replacing them with macs, he’ll keep the current spacing of 7m x 5m. For new orchards, he is spacing at 8m x 4m. He is keeping his ear to the ground in terms of what may be best for this particular area though and the current thinking is around a 9m x 5m spacing; this is because the local heat units are conducive to larger trees. White River/Nelspruit area generally sees 3 to 4 flushes annually but out here, they are getting double that – this extra growth is what is behind the motivation to plan for larger trees.
I found Jaff’s actual planting method interesting and will do my best to illustrate it here:
Cut the bottom of the bag off. Place the bottomless bag in the hole. Pull the bag over the tree, like you would pull a t-shirt off over your child’s head, this way all the soil is retained around the roots. Tuck the seedling in by filling in around the roots. NB: The soil mustn’t go higher than two fingers above the bag soil level. Water to push all air out of the soil.
Then, a week or two later, Jaff cuts the seedling down to 70cm in height. This can also be done at the nursery which may solve a few transport challenges. At first I balked at the idea of pruning so soon (especially knowing his fetish for shears) but when I saw a newly planted orchard (pictures below), I understood that the spindly youngsters would definitely benefit from a trim, in fact the wind was howling so strongly that day that I feared that they would be broken off at ground level if they weren’t trimmed soon. This ‘tipping’ also stimulates shoots that will become branches.
While on the topic of establishing new orchards and replacing old, we had an interesting discussion about ‘oculating’. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether I am even spelling that right as I cannot seem to locate a relevant meaning for the word. Monsieur Google says it has something to do with eyes which, at a stretch, could be linked, in that an ‘eye’ is cut to oculate budwood onto existing root stock. Apparently, this is common practice in Spanish citrus orchards and Jaff’s family has had great success when they implemented the practice in their own citrus orchards.
About 5 years ago, they ran a trial on two adjacent lemon orchards; one was planted with grafted seedlings. In the other they cut down a 3-year-old ruby grapefruit orchard and oculated lemons onto that rootstock. Right now, in terms of yield, the two orchards are equal but the oculated ones did come into production about a year ahead of the new seedling orchard. Besides earlier fruit yields, there are other benefits: no land prep and no seedling cost – yes, they did buy in quality budwood but that is a fraction of the cost of a whole seedling (about R65 vs a few cents). All that Jaff did was take 4 ladies for a week’s training and then let them implement what they learnt in his orchards. They oculated twice on each tree so that their chances of success were higher. The initial success rate was about 75% – the other 25% were just redone until they took. Jaff is now focusing on this new methodology of farming root stock, rather than the whole tree, throughout his operation and is excited to try it out on the macs. It requires a new perspective in that you need to take utmost care of your rootstock throughout its life. When market demands change, you can respond quicker by simply replacing the yielding tree on top of established root stock.
Left: Oculated orchard. Centre: close up of oculated tree (where both grafts took). Right: same age orchard planted as seedlings.
IRRIGATION: The good news is that this experienced sugarcane farmer can verify that macs only require about half the water that sugarcane, over the same area, does. And we know the returns are much higher.
Jaff has chosen microjets for irrigation and once again, his self-depreciation surfaces when he emphasises that this method suits his management style (and the mistakes he feels he often makes) and may not be the best method for everyone. With drip, it is not as easy to put down a lot of water quickly – but with microjets he can open the taps and rectify any errors quickly. This also serves to wash any supplements in effectively and then there’s always that wonderful ‘air-conditioning’ effect that micros facilitate in those really scorching Lowveld summers.
Jaff uses probes as a tool rather than a definitive controller – he still prefers to get into the orchards and scratch around himself to assess the crop’s needs.
Although irrigation is probably more essential in this area than in the cooler inland regions, Jaff feels that irrigation is also advantageous in providing the opportunity to manipulate stages of the trees’ production cycles – this requires fertiliser and irrigation management.
PROCESSING: Jaff hasn’t had a great need for this department yet. Although his most mature trees are six years old, they did get that mega-prune so will take a while before they are producing fully. In the interim, Jaff purchased a cheap dehusker that has served him (and a couple of neighbours) through the last season.
An old electric mango drier has been used to effectively dry the nuts that have been delivered so far. Obviously, this will be replaced when the volumes increase but the ingenuity in putting existing tools to work is inspirational. In the meantime, this unit dries about 30 crates at a time, to 5 to 7%, within 3 days.
So what about sorting? With a (practically) nil unsound kernel rate, I expected to see extensive sorting tables … “No, we are not sorting,” states Jaff, “everything is going to the factory.” This just shows that there really isn’t any insect activity yet. Long may it last! Jaff adds that they are currently keeping all the cultivars separate so that they can accurately assess the results and make well-equipped decisions with regards to future variety selection.
FARMING WITH EFFORT: I have often heard people say that sugarcane farmers struggle with the exhaustive demands of mac trees – that it is simply too detailed and can be a challenge for someone who ‘watches the grass grow from the stoep’. Well, here are cane farmers who find mac trees a walk in the park, but that’s because they also farm veg … and that appears to be what real hard work looks like!
Jaff’s family also farms peppers – they have about 10 hectares under net, where they produce coloured peppers (Did you know? – coloured peppers are just ripened green peppers!) and then green peppers are grown, as a gap crop, on every sugarcane field that is replanted. Note the plastic planting sheets that are put down to protect the peppers – a seedling then goes into each small hole … now that’s intense!
A disease will take just 24 hours to ruin the entire under-net area so you have to keep a constant vigil when taking on a crop like this. And, if you thought sugar prices were unstable, try veg prices – when you invest in a new crop you have no idea whether you’ll be getting R20 or R300 per box when they’re ready for market.
WRAP UP: This Jaff is very aware of his ‘youth’ in the mac industry and wanted me to make sure that his opinions are not sold to you as facts – this is something that he is cautious about, whether it is his own opinions or those of fellow advisers – and it’s something we can all learn from: be astute in your assessment of whether you are faced with a fact or an opinion before you decide what action to take.
I just had to ask about the dynamics of working in a dynasty like this … not sure how many of you are old enough to remember DALLAS on TV? Anyway, whenever I meet with a large-scale family farming operation where there are multiple generations, siblings and cousins involved, I can’t help but sense drama. Jaff concedes that it is not always easy but he also points out a distinct characteristic that sets them apart positively; they are always considering the impact of their decisions on the greater family and next generation … Jaff says he is sometimes amazed at how independent farmers manage their operations with a view exclusively on the ‘me and now’. This enterprise is always thinking about how their decisions will affect those who come after them and that HAS to be a good thing for everyone.
And on that note, I bid Jaff goodbye and begin the journey back to Nelspruit to prepare for my visit to a much smaller, but no less unique, operation tomorrow. And then that’s the end of the Mpumalanga farmers for this year.
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Until next time,
PS: Jaff 5 has just proof read his article and sent me some amazing pictures from his evening stroll around the farm. So, these are literally live and hot off the press ie: taken today, 23 October 2019. I cannot wait to see what this farm yields next year as this crop looks HEALTHY!! Go Jaff!!
And if any of you are interested in watching the wonder of nature at work …