This is not Just Another Fantastic Farmer, this is Just Another Fantastic Farming Doctor! Yup – this Jaff, and his partner, manage to practice the wonderful craft of medicine (they’re BOTH doctors) whilst running a pretty remarkable mac farm, high up in the Lowveld hills around Nelspruit. Time to meet the JAFFDs:

Date 14 June 2019
Area Nelspruit, Mpumalanga
Soils Lime, stone, sandy. Highest clay is about 10 to 12%, No drainage issues
Rainfall So erratic that an average is difficult to establish but it’s supposed to be 650 – 720mm annually. 2014 – 320mm in 2 days, then Drought for 3 years. The last three years have been around 300mm annually.
Altitude 850m – 950m (where crop is grown) Highest elevation is 1280m
Temperature range Ranges from 5/6°C (no frost) to 40°C. Summer average is 33°C

Last year had a 3-day heat wave during flowering, with wind – caused extensive damage.

Varieties Beaumont, 816, Nelmak 2, A4
Hectares under mac 7 hectares plus 7 hectares planned for this year
Other crops 7 hectares lemons, 7 hectares soft citrus planned for this year

The lowveld is already a beautiful place to be but when I made my way up the mountainside to meet Jaffd (unfortunately only one was available), it just got better – more remote, less spoilt – just the kind of country to make me smile.

And maybe it is the reward of being in this space that inspires the Jaffds to burn both ends of their candles as they practice medicine 3 days a week and farm in the rest, although they do admit that it is about time they got some help, especially when considering the substantial expansions planned for this year.

This 270-hectare farm was purchased by the Jaffds five years ago, from a deceased estate. It had been a cattle and nut farm (pecans and a couple macs). Pecans require 2 weeks below 4°C during winter, so this really isn’t a suitable climate. The macs were interesting though …

Pecans (left) are making way for macs, citrus and more …

They likes the idea of hedging bets and are opting for a mixed bag; they have removed most of the pecans and are reviving the existing macs and adding some more. They will be making use of the mountain-side for grazing cattle and are also investigating the viability and market for garlic and ginger. And I thought I packed a lot into a 24-hour day!?

But, we are here for the macs, so let’s focus on those …

Executing the deceased estate took five years and nothing happened on the farm in that time so, when the Jaffds arrived, it was pretty run down. The 3 hectares of macs were all either dead or dying. The flat-liners were removed and the others needed extensive first aid.

Our Jaffds openly admits that they knew nothing about farming, “And what do you do when you know nothing?” he asks me, “You surround yourself with people who do! … and don’t forget to keep using your common sense and logic,” he adds. So, together, they drew on their biological background and decided that, rather than treat symptomatically, they would go to the source of the problem; soil health. They knew that if this wasn’t addressed, the trees would never manage to produce adequately. They also set some rather high targets; he explains that while the total farm size is extensive, very little of it is arable, so they have to produce well over the average per hectare to make up for the lack of space.

By addressing soil health, they took the yield from the surviving trees from 1 tonne to 4 tonnes in a year and are now averaging 6 tonnes per hectare but they won’t be happy until they reach 10 tonnes per hectare! Sounds ambitious but these remarkable farmers believe it is possible. The strategy remains the same: look after the soil and the tree will deliver the fruit. Jaffd quickly adds that they could not do this alone (back to surrounding yourself with ‘clever’ people) and have tasked their trusty advisors with the same aggressive goal. They know they are asking a lot of them but believe that, with some lateral thinking around all aspects of orchard management, particularly the sub-terranean parts, it is achievable.

SOIL HEALTH: This is key to the strategy, so let’s start there … what does he mean by soil health? “Alive with microbial activity, and conducive to crop nutrition” is the simple answer. To achieve this our Jaffds felt they had to correct

  • moisture content (irrigation),
  • soil structure
  • levels of minerals and other key elements,
  • pH level
  • microbial presence and activity

… and continuously improve it all. They orders soil and leaf analyses before making any decisions and this, in itself, has saved them from making mistakes. He illustrates this with an interesting example: they were about to plant two orchards – one macs and the other mandarins (soft citrus). The decision was to put the macs above the dams and the mandarins closer to the house.

KNOW YOUR SOIL: Deciding to put their money where their mouths are, they ordered a full analysis of the soil. This cost R900 per hectare which may seem dear but the Jaffds felt it was worth every cent. Pictured above is just one of the pages, detailing depth for potential root development (soil depth). By getting to know the soils and engaging the specialists, he learnt that his plan was wrong and could correct the mistake before it even happened. (Result: the two fields are being swopped around – Macs can cope on poorer, shallower soils and the citrus needs the deeper soils. By correcting the plan, they will realise a better overall return)

MICROBIAL PRESENCE AND ACTIVITY: Jaffds had been struggling to figure out why two orchards, planted at the same time, with the same variety (A4), were performing so differently until they recalled that the one was an old pecan nut field where the trees had been dropped and burnt in situ. They now believe that the intense, prolonged heat sterilised the soil – the result of that is reflected in the stunted development of that orchard.

Left – pecan trees burnt here – sterilised soil. Right – planted same time, much bigger.

MOISTURE CONTENT (IRRIGATION): Water is a HUGE part of soil health. Too much can be as damaging as too little. Effective moisture management has to take the soil profile/structure into account and Jaffd explains why:

Most subtropical plants root systems are active between 30cm and 60cm below ground, so it is important that there is enough water getting to that depth – this is facilitated by removing soil layers as illustrated above. It’s also important that you are not over-irrigating and thereby washing nutrition right past that level, when drainage is uber-efficient, or suffocating life at that level, if drainage isn’t good. As most of soils here are sandy, with low clay content, they suspected that they may be guilty of over-irrigating to the point where it was leaching nutrients from the soil. They cut irrigation by two-thirds and the trees (both citrus and macs) responded very favourably. Soon thereafter they got wind of a farmer in Groblersdal who had been convinced to invest in probes by a consultant who knew he was over-irrigating. The result was that the farmer WAS guilty as suspected and ended up saving 60% in irrigation-related costs AND his crop increased by 50%. Hope that consultant got a nice bonus. 😊

As an extension of the soil depth issue, they dealt with the question of whether or not to ridge, which seems to be a hot topic amongst enquiring farmers. Others seem content to spend huge amounts of money ridging unnecessarily. (see illustration above)

All irrigation on this farm is gravity-fed. Jaffds recently spent a LOT of money enlarging and lining their dams but say it was money well-spent. As you can see below, the dam is still full even though we are half way through winter. Lining the dam has not only conserved water, it has also cleared the swamp below the dam – this land can now be used for further orchard development.

The fence is to protect wildlife from fatal slips.

LEVELS OF MINERALS AND OTHER KEY ELEMENTS: This is managed through supplements and, again, requires careful planning. You cannot simply throw excessive amounts of chemicals on the land without understanding the tree’s uptake, appetite and timing. For example; Jaffds commenced with a trial, this year, to establish the efficacy of with-holding nutrition during certain phases of the trees’ cycle. They knew that the trees had just come through two very taxing events (harvest and pruning) and were therefore most likely malnourished and in need of a breather. They fed them 60% of what the March leaf analyses recommended, washed it in with some water and then withheld all food and water for the following 4 weeks (see calendar below). The result was astounding and the trees were covered in flowers. Unfortunately, an excessive heat wave coupled with high winds pummelled the trees in August and destroyed most of the flowers – skewing the results of the trial but, they’re going to follow the same strategy next year and are excited to see the results.

A four-week fast in winter is key to the trial Jaffd ran this year and will repeat next season.

Another element of this strategy is to invest in 2 leaf samples; besides the ‘normal’ one in October, they ordered one in March. From this they formulated a supplementation requirement and gave 60% of that immediately after the trees had been pruned, washing it down with sufficient water to facilitate assimilation. Then the 4 week fast began, giving the trees a chance to rest and recuperate. Then, when they ‘woke them up’ in July with the other 40% of their ‘meal’, washed down with lots of water. They were now in the best possible position to produce copious flowers in August. Jaffd says that, 5 years from now they would have refined this new theory that takes advantage of the tree’s survival instinct, coupled with strategic feeding, and we are welcome to come back and see the results. I’ll be there!

The soil analysis Jaffds ordered doesn’t tell him them the status of the microbial life and that is THE key to soil health; for optimal root function, you need microbes. You can have microbial analysis done but Jaffds opted not to because they want to supplement anyway. There are many ways to do this but remember that over-irrigation suffocates microbes so pay attention to that area as well. Another facet to remain aware of is that many of these products use molasses as a carbon source for the microbes but too much molasses lowers the soil ph – again, it’s all about balance.

You should be adding supplements that improve microbial activity on an annual basis. Jaffds buy a drum of molasses every 2 to 3 years. Besides feeding microbes, it is also very rich in minerals and trace elements. They add a little bit (2 – 3% solution) to the microbe supplement to be applyied, leaving it to stand for a day or two so that the microbes become active, and then they apply it around the trees.

Here we see men applying Release LPH to the orchards. This is a soil conditioner that prepares the environment for the microbes that Jaffd will be administering in a week or so. Jaffds’ soil is low in magnesium and the microbes will assist in addressing this deficiency.

Another lesson Jaffds learnt was that stress relievers are important. In 2017, they sprayed a product, called Photon, onto the macs. It was applied at the beginning of the flowering season and lasts a couple of weeks. They didn’t spray in 2018 and, when the heat wave hit in August, they had HUGE regrets! They believe that the trees would have reacted far better had they prepared them with the spray. Jaffds report that some citrus farmers spray this product up to 3 times a year. From now on, they will be applying it twice annually – in time for flowering and again in mid-summer. Sounds like a G&T for trees. 😊 (Anyone interested in finding out more on this product can refer to the advert block at the beginning of the article – it links to an information sheet)

FOLIAR FEEDS: So a foliar spray that works on the surface tension of the leaf seems to be highly effective, but what about feeding through the leaves? Jaffds say there is a place for foliar feeding but it needs to be done correctly eg: never in temperatures exceeding 28°C or below 4°C, in fact, Jaffds prefer to make sure it’s below 25°C by doing all spraying after dusk. Just like, in human physiology, some supplements are more effective delivered orally, some topically and some intravenously, trees will also have requirements that may not be best received through the root system. It’s all about knowing your trees intimately and studying the options carefully.

Jaffds use leaf analysis to get to know their trees and what they need through each phase. They do this exercise twice a year – once in October and then again in March (as mentioned in the new strategy above)

Based on the leaf analysis results, a recommendation guide is formulated

I have sat with many great farmers who question the use of fancy (labelled) combins that unscrupulous suppliers convince you are ‘essential’. Their reaction has been to avoid the ‘snake oils’ completely and rather use generic basics. Jaffds have a slightly different view – as they are relatively new to farming and operating a diverse portfolio of crops (and then there’s the doctor thing that leaves them with even less time and focus), they need to rely on specialists and believe they have found a dependable team that is truly invested in their success. They have chosen to trust them and trial their recommendations, but they never relinquish common sense. Their advice is that you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water as there are some wonderful products out there that are well-worth considering.

And as they gain experience, they learn, eg: they have seen the value in applying nitrogen together with some P & K, rather than just a straight 1:0:1. 5:1:5 often delivers notable and justifiable returns.

By testing the soil in the new orchards they are planning they saved huge expense on ordering a few interlinks of lime – between the tests and the specialists, they only needs to supplement the rows with a small amount of lime.

VARIETIES: The original macs were 816 and Beaumont – I was intrigued to hear that the finicky, fussy 816s had lasted at all through the 5 years of neglect but they did and are now looking the picture of health:

This was before they had their annual pruning. Seeing the colour and health of these trees encourages Jaffd to continue with the path he is on.

When deciding what to plant in the expansion, Jaffds considered elevation, temperature, demand trends, what’s working for the neighbours and what will support cross-pollination. There are a couple Nelmak 2’s scattered through the 816 orchard and Jaffds have noticed that the trees immediately surrounding the Nelmaks produce larger nuts. They’re putting this down to cross-pollination and have therefore decided that these varieties will be a good combination. For the Beaumonts they will be planting A4s as they flower simultaneously.

TREE SUPPLIERS – This is something Jaffds got wrong – once. Four years ago, they were in the market for 500 Beaumont trees and were told that a certain supplier was reputable. They went and looked; the roots and grafts looked fine – they couldn’t see anything to be concerned about and yet these trees still haven’t taken off. What was the mistake? They feel it was not buying from a certified nursery who can give at least 10 references of successful, producing orchards that originated in their nursery. Jaffds warn that, even when trees look good, it’s just not worth planting anything vaguely questionable. They still don’t know what the issue was but suspects the original seedlings held the problem.

Trees on the left were from the ‘unknown’ supplier whilst those on the right (same variety and age) were from a registered, reputable, local nursery

PLANTING: Digging the holes can be challenging; Jaffds bought a 50cm auger for the job but mechanical failures caused more frustration than they needed. Recently a neighbour helped out with some handy advice; if you are going to put irrigation in anyway, do it before you dig the holes. Water for a few days and then dig the holes. The softer land will be more forgiving on equipment and the process will go far quicker. Jaffds are now preparing 50cmholes, mixing the soil with compost (mostly chippings from all the pecan wood he has available) and some super-phosphate and putting this back around the seedling’s roots, which they do not break up, preferring instead to preserve the shape and integrity of the root system straight out of the bag. They then cover with a thick blanket of mulching, about 1m across, to enhance water retention and microbial activity. They then water well and wait to see a little bit of growth before starting with any fertiliser programme. The first fertilising will be in liquid form so that roots are not burnt, with some molasses for the microbes.

Many say that it makes no difference when you plant trees in the lowveld but, in Jaffds’ environment, they have seen that it does. If they plants after January, the trees just don’t get away until the following year. Subsequently, they’ve made a rule that all planting happens in Oct, Nov, Dec. The trees are then well-established by the following winter.

Jaffds were initially planting with a 7m x 5m spacing. They then shrunk that to 6,5m x 4m and are now using 6m x 4m. They are well aware that the trees need sufficient sunlight but cannot ignore the yield they are getting off the denser orchards. He continues to monitor the situation but here’s what they are finding so far:

Trial results – comparison between two spacings. Beaumonts, same age, planted same time.
Spaced Orchard size Yield Tonnes per hectare
7m x 5m 1,7 hectares 1,1 tonnes 647kgs/hectare
6m x 4m 0,9 hectares 1,3 tonnes 1444kgs/hectare

He knows that there may be another, unrelated, factor at play here but maybe the dense situation favours effective pollination?

Clear evidence that Jaffds are on the right path

CROP PROTECTION: Jaffds are challenged by a few threats:

  • Thrips is the biggest headache; they attack both the macs and the citrus. As environmentalists, Jaffds prefer not to spray organophosphates, instead they use an alternate, less harmful product and apply two precautionary doses as soon as temperatures start rising in summer. Thereafter they scout methodically and spray only if counts are high enough.
  • Stink bugs are also one to keep an eye on and Jaffds do a preventive spray for Early Stinkbug, followed up by intense scouting. They did discover that the old pecan nut orchard had been harbouring these critters and ended up having to spray them as well. The last report from the processor was 0,1% stink bug damage so they seem to be winning that war.
  • Phytophthora is treated symptomatically with a root and systemic spray applied annually.
  • Nut-borer are not too much of a problem, thankfully.

Overall, with regards to pesticides, Jaffds are very careful about what they spray is prepared to pay extra to ensure that the ecology is not affected. Their valley neighbours collaborate in protecting the fauna and flora and are now seeing the fruits of their efforts as bee populations are increasing. Jaffds will soon be planting Lavender and Basil to create a sustainable food source for the bees.

Bees in the Kiaat forest. Kiaat, known as Mukwa in Zimbabwe, are protected in South Africa and are fire resistant.

HARVEST: Beaumonts are sprayed in preparation for the harvest but the 816s are knocked off without ethapon. Jaffds pays their labour a flat daily rate and then a harvest bonus if everyone has worked well.

They installed a new dehusker, sorting table and drying bin this year and are very happy with the set up that was customised to their small space. The dehusker is working very well, delivering almost (99%) completely clean nuts.

Right now, they are sorting twice, on the same table but will add a second sorting table as finances allow.

For the first few days of each season, they stand with the workers and find examples of every blemish they are looking for – they find this works far better than a poster.

And so we come to the end of our visit and my week in Mpumalanga. Time to start down the long road back to KZN. The Jaffds have been a revelation in capacity – what they fit into this lifetime is nothing short of astounding. I am privileged that you even found time for us, and we are grateful beyond words for the experience and knowledge you shared today – we look forward to seeing your operation grow. I have to share that Jaffd had very few changes to my original draft of his story, besides to add that the success he has enjoyed thus far is not a result of his efforts, or even those of his valued partner; all his outcomes are by the grace of our Heavenly Father and he wanted to make that clear; the success they have enjoyed is a blessing, undeserved but immensely appreciated.

We will have one more story this year – from a JAFF whose name has been mentioned more than once as someone who would holds value for you. I cannot wait to meet him and bring you his experience.

Until then, God Bless.

PS: 2020 will present an opportunity for only 12 advertisers on this platform. It’s a specially tailored package that will benefit readers and suppliers alike. If you have a product that has benefited mac farmers, email for more information.