FARM CONTEXT
Date of visit February 2020
Area Levubu, Limpopo
Soils Whole variety, from deep, rich reds (35% clay) to Glen Rosas and sandy, poor, rocky patches.
Rainfall Av: 800 – 900mm annually (but last season they didn’t get even half of that)
Altitude 600 – 700m
Distance from the coast About 850kms as the crow flies
Temperature range Av high: 40°C, Av low: 12°C. Typography means that temperatures vary vastly across the farms – some have frost at times and some can get way hotter than 40°C
Varieties 788, 344, 741, Beaumont, A4, 842 & 849, Takelane, 246
Hectares under mac 54h in production + 10h new plantings
Other crops 70h avos

21h guavas

Oh what a treat you are in for – a visit to this large, established, successful, innovative and exciting operation; I’m not sure where to start – with the promising new mac variety they’re testing or the wise advice on how to survive economic downturns, or maybe the sobering discussion on the imminent industry collapse … ?

First, let me set the context for these Jaffs – it is a family-run operation so there is a close-knit team collaborating at the helm of this long-standing enterprise which began its life in Levubu in 1982 on a small banana farm. The pioneering Jaff worked for the Dept of Agriculture as an Agricultural Economist and has worked incredibly hard to grow the business to where it is now, he chuckles when he tells me that the bank is still the major shareholder though …

Although avos are their primary crop, they’ve been in macs for a long time. Their first mac plantings are 25 years old. I gush about what visionaries they were to plant a crop before it was “a thing” but they shake their heads and say that, in this area, they were 25 years behind the real pioneers. They have a block of mac trees, on another farm of theirs, that is 50 years old.

Levubu is an interesting area in many ways – having the Soutpansberg Mountains as a backdrop, and agricultural land covering a lot of the foothills means that this area is climatically diverse. Conditions vary across a single small farm depending on the aspect, gradient, soil-type, altitude, precipitation etc. What thrives on one hill, won’t survive around the bend …

HERE TO STAY

As someone who doesn’t have any emigration options, I sometimes worry that I might be left to “turn the lights off”, so it makes me very happy to meet fellow ‘stayers’, especially when they are such quality folk!

Regardless of the unstable political climate at the time, Jaff bought this particular farm in 1994. When Land Claims were gazetted in 2000, they chose to expand, doubling the area they farmed. On the day that parliament established the committee to handle expropriation of land without compensation, they bought more land. Brave is one thing but this seems a little reckless!? Jaff shakes his head and explains; “We’re here to stay. There’s nowhere to run to so we carry on.” Yes, they’ve had claims on their land but they’ve never progressed beyond the initial “roar”. Jaff explains the lion’s hunting technique of roaring to scare prey out of hiding, then, when he sees who’s running, he selects which target to chase down … Jaff hasn’t run from the roar and he trusts that sense will prevail and our beloved country will realise the value of skilled farmers.

IN CHARGE OF OUR OWN DESTINY

It all comes down to a philosophy that the family holds up to everything they do – be in charge of your own destiny. To illustrate this further, Jaff tells me about how, when they bought land at one point, there was a waiting list of 6 years for the right avo trees. That inspired them to start their own nursery – again, taking control of their own outcomes. Avo is a particularly difficult nursery to succeed at. No one wants to share their knowledge either, making the challenge that much greater. But it is one that they’ve tackled and they now run a successful, fully-registered avo nursery.

Jaff’s mac nursery only produces rooted cuttings currently.

SHOULD WE ALL HAVE OUR OWN NURSERY?

“Not at all!” Jaff explains that first option should always be to buy from a professional, accredited supplier, “Two years is not a long time to wait. There’s plenty prep-work to keep you (and the nursery) busy in that time.” Jaff recalls a recent farm they bought and, after a year, all he could say he had planted was 7 electricity poles!

Even when ordering from their own nursery, Jaffs have to wait around 2 years! “It’s called a Nursery for a reason – the youngsters have to be nursed – that’s a highly qualified job.” High quality genetic material, the strongest seedlings, disease control and legality are just some of the corner stones necessary to produce potentially profitable trees. Nursery selection is not the place to compromise.

SPREAD YOUR RISK BY DIVERSIFYING …

If you’re going to be brave, at least spread the risk – and that’s exactly what this tribe of Jaffs do, and why they are involved in a number of businesses and crops. They also look for opportunities and follow the logic they see before them. Large tracts of their farmlands are not suitable to “pieperige” avos so guavas and macs are put to work in these marginal areas. Guavas have always been a great tertiary crop and are interplanted with the macs in the early, pre-productive years. They come into production in the second year. Unfortunately, they have been losing the battle against a highly aggressive, deadly disease in this crop and most of the trees die young.

Guavas are interplanted with the young macs for the first 4 to 5 years, and then the guavas are removed.

… BUT DON’T OVER-DIVERSIFY

Jaff tried to break the guava disease cycle by growing cabbage, granadilla and paw paws as rotational crops but it proved to be one diversified step too far and distracted their attention and resources from the macs. If you over-diversify and scarcity hits (this may be funding, water, management capacity – anything) your decisions become complicated, panic sets in and mistakes are easy to make. There is an optimal level of diversification for every operation and it’s unique to that set of circumstances – you need to balance your appetite for risk and your resources to find your own “sweet spot”.

LOOK UP AND DOWN RATHER THAN ACROSS

These Jaffs have found that Vertical Integration works for them and is key to their strategy. Farming is reliant on natural resources (water, environmental stability, optimal weather conditions – climate change is a reality.) As they become more scarce, so farming becomes more challenging. So, when expanding, it makes sense to look around for what else would complement your farming operations, outside of farming, and consider those options before toiling more land.

I did a little research on vertical integration and found that there are most certainly advantages to structuring your enterprise with a focus on this channel of expansion but there are, equally, disadvantages, like the collapse of a commodity due to disease or international market trends – this would affect all your businesses as they all relate to that commodity. As with everything in life; BALANCE is the key and Jaff’s advice is simply to consider vertical integration/expansion as much as you consider horizontal expansion.

Here, they have established nursery facilities for both macs and avos. With avos they also have their own packhouse that markets and exports fruit and, with macs, they have chosen to invest in local processing facilities. As the family grows, so does the integration into related markets.

What is the biggest CHALLENGE these Jaffs are facing, in MACADAMIAS?

Low yields.

Jaff cites a number of possible reasons for this; old trees, old varieties, high temperatures, low rainfall, uncontrollable insects. Let’s dive into a few of those, and then examine the possible solutions …

Old varieties: I’d never met a 246 before. It is one of the OGs (🤣Can’t believe I am using that term – you can tell I have teenage children!) – to save you all from doing what I regularly have to do to understand my children (Google), OG is modern-speak for Original (Original Gangster).

A 246 orchard

As this is the birthplace of our mac industry, almost every farm has at least an orchard of 246. It still performs well but not as well as the newer varieties. 788 and 344 are also fairly common but do not seem to be faring well in the hotter, drier conditions that climatic cycles* have been delivering in this area over the last 10 years.

*High temperatures and low rainfall, coupled with a change in WHEN the temperatures peak and the rain falls: Climate change or cycles will see certain areas become unsuitable for certain crops. This was discussed in more depth in September’s story http://www.tropicalbytes.co.za/2020-9-jaff-10/

Insects: Jaff has experienced MAJOR challenges, as have all mac farmers in this region. Quite simply; insects are out of control and farmers’ reactions are making the situation worse.

SOLUTIONS:

New Varieties: Okay, I have barely been able to hold myself together to this point because of how excited I was to experience a new LOCAL, SOUTH AFRICAN variety in (first level) testing. Jaff kept trying to calm me down and explain that it is VERY early days and I should not be shouting anything from the rooftops. But it was useless! Our industry is full of Hawaiian and Australian cultivars so when there is a sniff of something local, that is showing enormous promise, I get excited.

Meet Takelane:

  • Planted as a Beaumont seedling, grafted with 788 budwood, in 1994. (She’s 26 years old)
  • Small, open tree.
  • Crack out average of 34.
  • Large nuts, with similar shell characteristics to Beaumont (uneven shell, with mottled markings)
  • Between 1 and 3 nuts per raceme

Takelane is planted on the corner of a block so it was easy for the team to notice her unusually high and consistent yields. About 10 years ago they grafted 25 trees with Takelane budwood – these consistently performed well so they sent a sample for cracking and roasting – more good news which then prompted them to start with bigger trial plantings in 2017. Since then they have propagated rooted cuttings, grafted budwood onto Beaumont root stock and topworked it into existing orchards. Again and again, she delivers. This season they will be ready to gauge more accurately what the average yields are from a Takelane orchard that is coming into production.

Developing LOCAL varieties that perform well in LOCAL climates is key to our LOCAL industry. It all starts like Takelane did – look out for those special trees that behave slightly differently to the others … Jaffs don’t believe that Takelane is just Beaumont root stock that has grown through, neither do they think she is a 788. This is why:

BEAUMONT & TAKELANE
Similarities Differences
–          Shell markings and colouring –          Takelane leaves are considerably less spiney
–          Shell thickness –          Takelane nuts are larger
–          Bearing time (late season) –          TKR of Takelane is an av of 34
–          Takelane is a smaller, more open tree
–          Beaumonts often drop immature nuts after intensely hot days. Takelane doesn’t.
788 & TAKELANE
Similarities Differences
–          New flush is light green –          Bearing time of Takelane is later in the season
–          Yield is far higher
–          Takelane leaves are less wavy
–          Takelane is less affected by higher temperatures

By the way, Takelane means Happiness, in Venda, and is the name of the farm the original tree lives on.

The Jaffs are currently replacing all their 788 and 344 trees. Fifteen years ago, the 788s were delivering 6,9t/h WIS (about 10% moisture) but they have not been consistent in the last 10 years. Their long flowering period also makes them expensive to defend against insects. Although Beaumonts have not been able to deliver such a high tonneage, they are consistent at around 4,2t/h (also WIS). The flowering period is also shorter and therefore cheaper to protect. Other cultivars that will be introduced are A4, 814, 842 & 849 and, of course, Takelane.

This orchard of 788 is being topworked with 814. To hedge his bets, Jaff has also interplanted Beaumont in case the topworking doesn’t take well.

Climatic changes

The next challenge Jaff cited was around climate. Not a lot any of us can do, as individuals, to change the climate but we can be observant enough to recognise a dead horse and not flog it. (I trust you are all familiar with that idiom?) Just as Jaff had to do in the 90s when he realised that the area he farms was no longer suitable for bananas, we all need to accept that it doesn’t matter how much we WANT to farm macs, they are not going to thrive EVERYwhere. There’s usually something else we can try.

Insects

TropicalBytes’ articles are incredibly interesting and beneficial to readers (yes, I can say that as I know how much the farmers and I put in to making sure they are 😊) but there will be a few topics that are not just nice to read, they are VITAL to act on. When we have the opportunity to learn from people who not only have decades of experience in farming macs and other crops, they also have the theoretical education to base that on, along with unique insight into the industry and wise, long-term perspective, we need to pay attention …

“The mac industry HAS to change the way it is handling pest control,” is the bottom line from Jaff. “Our short-term solutions are jeopardising our long-term sustainability. We can develop all the new varieties and irrigation techniques and nutrition solutions we like but, until we start taking a sustainable view on pest management, we are limiting industry potential to the point where it will threaten not only the future of macs but other crops as well.”

Let’s unpack that:

  • We have chemicals to kill stink bugs so what’s the problem? The focus on stink bugs is the problem … the way farmers are remunerated puts a quantifiable cost on the stink bug problem. When a problem is assigned a value, it gets attention, and then research and then solutions. Which is great but what are those solutions doing to the rest of the environment? What else is being affected, that we are not attaching a rands and cents value to?
  • Thrips are tiny insects that live off our mac trees – leaves, nut husks and flowers. In many regions they have reached epidemic proportions but, because there is no VALUE assigned to the damage they cause, our focus is not on them. Are they actually costing us more than stink bugs, nut borers and mielie bugs combined? We’ll never know because we cannot quantify the cost of the flowers they destroy, the leaves they retard and the husks they harden.

Our industry is young, we have a lot to learn and the immaturity is showing in the way we are disregarding the INDIRECT costs of insects that are not damaging the nuts directly. This happened in Levubu and they are now warning the rest of the industry to take heed before the problem is country-wide.

So, what are they suggesting?

  • That we establish a financially accurate value to the damage that thrips (and other) insects are costing the industry. This requires research. Research requires funding. Funding requires prioritisation. Prioritisation requires farmers’ votes.

Thrips (and the consequent damage) on young avos, mac raceme and mac husk.

How’s PEST MANAGEMENT being handled on this farm currently?

As you’ve realised, insect control is the number one priority for this mac operation. They employ a full-time team of scouts who go out every day. They do not follow a spray programme as they have seen how it serves to increase resistance and casualties in the beneficial insect populations. The spray team will use chemicals in the hot-spot areas they identify, as is necessary.

The Jaffs advise that farmers should always be in the orchard when the sprayers are being calibrated. And that you scout immediately after a spray to see if it was effective.

When it comes to pests, Jaffs’ concern is not for the stink bugs, it is for the growing infestation of numerous harmful insects that they believe are costing the farmers more than the stink bugs are.

It’s like a bakery owner who keeps increasing his security at the front door to stop shop-lifters stealing his baked goods when the value of raw ingredients pilfered by his own staff, out the back door, is costing him many times as much!! Because his earnings are based on finished products, he defends these single-mindedly, killing allies/customers (beneficial insects) in the cross-fire!

Jaff is not suggesting that we disregard the shop-lifters, he is advising that we at least establish the value of what’s being taken out the back door. Once we know that, we can strategise for suitable long-term solutions before the industry is crippled. We also need to accept that a certain level of shoplifting is worth the “customers’” safety.

Jaff has a first-hand example of the side-effects of over-spraying stink bugs. A neighbouring farmer was spraying his orchards almost every night. The first three rows of Jaff’s adjoining avo farm were unusable with thrips damage. When the farm was taken over in the land reform process, all spraying and farming activity, stopped. Suddenly the thrips damage on the avos stopped. Why? Natural balance was restored. The correlation is undeniable.

Jaff remembers how, 20 years ago, he’d have to walk through his orchards, in the mornings, with a stick held out in front of him because there were so many spider webs. Nowadays, there’s no need for a stick because the spiders are gone. He wonders how many thrips those spiders were snagging …

Jaff understands that, generally, people don’t listen to “good for the environment” advice. The industry needs more economic phd’s so that we get the economic picture of the mac future sketched accurately – only then will the farmers listen to the entomologists and environmentalists about what’s good for the future of the industry.

CROP SELECTION and LAND PREP

I found it fascinating to view macs through the eyes of these avo farmers; the perspective is so different from that of a cane farmer, for example. Whilst the latter can find macs a challenging crop, avo farmers find it comparatively easy. I am learning that avos can be frustratingly susceptible to root issues and a belt-and-braces approach is therefore used in land preparation. But, when it comes to macs, they find they can get away with far less expense in preparing the land, for two reasons:

  1. Macs are more tolerant and will often produce well in poorer quality soils.
  2. The better the soil, the bigger the tree. This is another thing that many new (< 20 years in macs) farmers can take note of; whilst we’re all chasing tree growth, the experienced farmers are wary – they’ve experienced the challenges of pruning and the consequences of not doing it properly! They’ve realised that it’s not a big tree we should be chasing, it’s big yields – and that can happen in B-grade soil.

For macs, ridges will only be constructed, on this farm, when soils are too shallow.

Spacing is decided after assessing the soil and the cultivar – better soils and bigger trees will require a greater spacing between rows and trees in the row whilst, when in poorer soils and using smaller trees, like Takelane, they can be planted closer together.

CHANGING VARIETIES

As new cultivars are released, established farms will need to replace old with new in order to maximise potential yields. Our Jaffs are ‘in this movie’ right now and have some wisdom about how best to go about it:

  • When orchards are 25 years or older, it is worth taking to opportunity to replant. Land prep can be done so that it attends to any drainage and/or compaction issues. The vitality of fresh root stock will be worth the investment.
  • Orchards younger than 25 years can be top worked, if the root stock and soil is healthy. Top working is a technique that these Jaffs are still refining but they already have some valuable learnings:
    • Don’t cut the trees less than 1m from the ground. The tree has all it’s reserves stored in the trunk and they’ve seen that the regrowth is far stronger and comes through far quicker when a tall stump is left.

On the left you can see the height of the stump, and the regrowth that will be used to graft on to. The “extra legs” are just supporting the vigorous regrowth so it doesn’t break before the grafting prep. On the right is Takelane showing off. This tree was grafted (on one main branch only) last year and the Takelane budwood is already giving a substantial harvest!! Jaff says it doesn’t always happen this way. 😊

NUTRITION AND SOIL CARE

The soil in every orchard is analysed once a year. Organic fertilisers are used – generally an 8:1:8 chicken-litter based product and then, based on the soil analysis results, top ups of N, P & K will be applied by hand.

All prunings are chipped up and then mulched in the inter-row. During harvest season the mulch is moved from under the trees and replaced after harvest.

Jaff has managed to generate the best mulch on this farm. It also happens to have the least Thrips. Jaff suspects that the healthy soils, aided by the good mulch, are hosting beneficials that help to control thrips in the soil-based phase of their life-cycle.

Jaff explains that zinc and boron are important foliar feeds but he’s not sure about the others … thinks they may make the farmer feel better than the trees. 😊  They did start with a kelp supplement this year and are hoping it will moderate the stress that the harsher climate is placing on the trees.

Jaff advises that fellow farmers should always look for evidence that a new product is beneficial in your context. You do this by always testing everything before going big – the best way is to divide a block in half, use the product on one half and leave the other half as a control. Make sure that whatever you’re testing is the only difference between the two halves. Ideally, you should be testing over 3 years before you make a decision to cover the entire farm.

Compost is an important factor in enriching the organic content of the soil; like Jaff 10, they dig holes into which the compost is placed but, instead of one large hole, they have chosen to dig 4 to 6 smaller ones, per tree.

Left: The slight bowl in the soil indicates one of last year’s compost pits. Centre: Jaff digs and comes up with a fist full of healthy roots throughout this pit (Right).

MOISTURE MANAGEMENT

The farms are fully irrigated. Since shortening the cycles to 2 hours, 3 times per week, they have saved on water, electricity and phytophthera cases. During flowering and nut set, they increase the amount slightly.

Probes are in place but these Jaffs prefer to check the soils themselves. Basing a 5-hectare decision on one small probe is risky. The scouting team also inputs their observations around soil moisture into the App they use and that provides invaluable comparisons for the probe readings.

Left: These canals feed many of the Levubu farmers with water from the Albisini dam, via the Levubu River. The rain that fell while I was in the area (trust me, it didn’t stop!) will see them through the rest of the season. On the right is one of Jaff’s irrigation dams. They’re growing Tilapia fish in there to supply the local market and to enrich their irrigation water.

CROSS POLLINATION

These Jaffs are unsure about the value of interplanting cultivars to improve cross-pollination. Their worst producing farm is interplanted and some of their best are mono-cultivars.

They do have their own bees and actively encourage more wild bees by providing hives. One man is dedicated to building hives from old pallets and these are distributed around the farms. Jaff wonders how much pollinating the thrips do … when they’re not eating his flowers.

Home-made bee-hives

They have also built bat boxes but found that the resident bats weren’t able to make a significant impact on the stink bug numbers … and bees move into some of the bat boxes.

PRUNING

Jaffs have made a direct correlation between sunlight and fruit set. This might be because beneficial insects (bees etc) prefer sunlight and harmful bugs enjoy shelter but they have seen that ‘windows’ in the trees are always full of nuts.

In this operation, two pruning techniques are used to keep the trees manageable, and every tree is cut every year:

  1. An All-Cut hedger is used to open the rows.
  2. Pneumatic clippers then come in to do select limb removal, to manage height, open windows for sunlight and spray penetration as well as to lift skirts.

Jaff is aware that hedging is frowned upon but the excessively high cost of pruning forced him into this method, just to help keep the inter-rows open.

On the left are the compressors that drive the pneumatic shears. On the right is the All Shear used to open the orchard rows.

This Beaumont orchard, that has been pruned using the All Shear, produced 7,8t/h (WIS) last year.

HARVESTING

Here, mac harvests need to work around the avo harvest. This means that Beaumonts work well because they can be controlled with ethapon. Two weeks before the Hass harvest is due to end, ethapon is applied to the macs and the avo pickers become mac harvesters.

I was interested to learn about the ‘maturity test’ that these farmers use to check whether they can initiate nut drop with ethapon; they collect a batch of nuts (at least 100), dehusk and then dry them in the oven at 70 to 80°C for about 12 hours. They then put them in the bath. If at least 90% float, then the orchard is ready to harvest.

They are investigating the viability of mechanised sweepers to assist with harvesting. The problem is that too much ‘litter’ (leaves and sticks) is being collected with the nuts. This costs time and money to remove.

Currently they place bulk bins in-field. Bags or crates are weighed per labourer and then poured into the bulk bins which are then taken to the processing plant. Jaff appreciates the accuracy of this system, both per labourer and per block. The bins are weighed again, at the shed.

In-field harvesting system: one-tonne bins, mobile crane scale, capture device.

PROCESSING

The extensive processing at this facility might be why this organisation delivers one of the lowest unsound rates in the region. The process is to dehusk, table sort, bath (only in the early season), dry in bins (to below 10% moisture) table sort, deliver. Yup – you read correctly – there are TWO table sorts and the second one is AFTER drying. Jaffs believe the post-drying sort is more important that the pre-drying one because stink bug lesions are only visible after drying. I had always thought that stink bug damage is undiscernible but apparently it is visible if you take a look when the nut shell is dry because the stink bug lesions show up more clearly – they are small indentations with a reddish colour ‘stain’.

The drying bins are heated, using heat generated in the shed ceiling. As they expand there has been a choice between building more drying bins or drying the nuts faster. They’ve chosen the dry-faster option and to that end, they’ve been working on a method of harvesting heat from the compost pile, using special heat exchangers to create as much area, exposed to heat, as possible. This is still in development with copper piping being tested this year. “If budget allows we will build the first pilot plant next year,” explains Jaff. Compost can get up to 60°C and it seems a real waste to not use that energy. The system they’re working on will automatically switch from compost heat to ceiling heat as required.

MARKET CORRECTION

There’s nothing better for the soul than a conversation with intelligent, open-minded people; exploring ‘what-ifs’ and ‘buts’ … as those of you who have allowed me in to your spaces know, I can get side-tracked very easily. And so, on this day, we meandered into current mac market buoyancy and the stability thereof … Jaff believes a correction is imminent. Natural market forces will demand it. It may not be in the next 5, or even 10, years but it will come. And Jaff’s concerned about the sustainability of the industry – lower prices will derail farmers who are not working with nature. We’ve seen it in the sugar industry – the first casualties are always the ones with the highest costs. Working against nature can be VERY expensive.

In the late 60’s/early 70’s the farmer who owned this farm took all his macs out because he couldn’t sell the produce. A year later, the US market was cracked and the commodity was in demand once more. In about 2007/8 the market crashed again because prices had been driven too high and there was buyer resistance. This operation only survived because they had the guavas to pull them through. It was in these years that Jaff had a few other disasters – a frost that killed 1200 trees and a fire that killed 800 trees. In both instances he was able to replace the trees immediately because nurseries were so over-stocked – demand had dried up.

Obviously, since then, there’s been a marked recovery but the “bubble” makes Jaff nervous; “In stock market trading, a bubble is when everyone, even the secretaries, are buying shares. It is a clear indicator of an imminent burst.” And that’s what Jaff sees happening in our mac market; everyone with even a small piece of land is planting macs.

But don’t see this as doom and gloom – it’s a normal economic cycle that will happen regardless. All you have to do to survive is keep your costs low and anticipate prices coming down. And consider working together, as an industry, to establish the cost of pest damage and implement IPM strategies sooner rather than later.

Until next time, D

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