Jaff 15 is full of youthful enthusiasm, without any of the ignorance that usually accompanies this sort of eagerness. He’s a newly-wed and his beautiful wife is the perfect partner to enable this business to soar. Seeing opportunities through their fresh eyes, was exhilarating. Let’s understand their context before we get into the detail:
|Date of visit
||24 November 2020
||Margate, South Coast, KwaZulu-Natal
||Full range but mostly heavy clay, heavy shale, poor quality soils
||800 – 1000mm
||Very high: Aug to Nov – 40 to 52kms wind speed
|Distance from the coast
||21°C to 30°C
||344, 788, Beaumont, A4, 816, 814
|Hectares under mac
||35 hectares bananas, 55 hectares sugar cane
Both Mr & Mrs Jaff are fourth generation farmers – it’s like a union of two great farming families. Mrs Jaff is from the Paddock area. In fact, I have previously interviewed one of her cousins as a brilliant farmer from that region. Both their roots have been in sugar cane but, as with many cane farmers, they’ve diversified into macadamias.
This Jaff couple met during their student years; she did a BCom – the accounting aspect is providing a solid foundation from which well-informed business decisions are possible. He schooled through Weston Agricultural College and then went on to a qualification in plumbing – the practical value he brings is priceless in this hands-on environment. These diverse, non-agriculture qualifications, coupled with the knowledge they’ve gathered growing up on farms makes them the perfect farming couple – I’m excited for them!
The inherent challenges of this farm might be viewed as negatives but they’ve chosen to embrace them as the opportunities for growth and improvement they really are.
The farm is steep, has some really horrible soils, gale-force winds and theft on a whole new scale. It’s great to see how they’re tackling each of these challenges with enthusiasm:
GRADIENT – There’s not a lot they can do about this besides understand it and farm it the best way you can. It means they have to do everything by hand on these slopes and understand that every hillside is a different micro-climate. Beneficial drainage and damaging erosion are two sides of the same coin – but they’ve managed to find solutions that will result in well-drained but moist, healthy soils.
WINDS – Living on the coast is great but one of the big disadvantages is the wind. Planting walls of casuarinas on these slopes is pointless and so they have come up with some great solutions that are helping with the wind AND other challenges.
THEFT – Not nuts off the floor, nor even bags out the sheds … WHOLE TREES is what they steal here!! We’ll get into this in more detail under PESTS.
IMPROVEMENTS – Mac farming can often feel like two steps forward and one step back but, if you dare to sit down for even a little while, you’ll slide into a precarious situation. Whilst it would have been great to join an operation that was in perfect condition, this young couple is really grateful that there are so many opportunities for them to make a difference. And they’ve been able to do this in a short space of time. The confidence boost and motivation of that is priceless.
Sometimes farming operations run copy-and-paste solutions … “if it worked in one field, roll it out over the whole farm.” And that can work if you have generic conditions across all the fields but when you have different soils, gradients, micro-climates and the age of the trees ranges from 23 years to ‘still planting’, copy-and-paste is not an option. These young farmers embrace that complexity and relish the opportunity to maximise each field individually. They even keep records of harvests ‘per tree’ where possible, in order to refine productivity. It requires an intense attention to detail which is exactly how they operate.
And now you’re thinking that this farm can’t be very big if they’re that precise … not so! There are 180 hectares of arable land: 70.7 hectares of planted macs, 35.5 hectares of producing bananas and 55 hectares of sugarcane. Those who were doing mental calculations – no, that doesn’t add up to 180. Jaff explains why they are resting so much of the land; “Old farming mentality boiled down to mining the land – mono-cropping with no rest. We have decided to plant cover crops and supplement the soil with all that organic matter and nutrients. It is a practice of going back to basics and focusing on soil health and the rejuvenation of that.”
When they got here, in 2018, the oldest bananas ranged from 16 – 20 years with only small amounts being replanted annually. Some of the cane was on its 28th ratoon and yielding only 40 tonnes per hectare (12-month cycle).
All 3 crops in one picture.
Jaff’s parents have graciously allowed this young power couple to come in and make all the changes they want to take this operation to the next level. It’s early days; they’ve only had 2 years at the helm, but the plan is set to create a farming enterprise that doesn’t only put food on their table but is a solid, sustainable base for the next generations to provide and build on for their families.
Then comes the warning; “This is not a pristine and photogenic farm; it’s actually really messy and overgrown.” When I first started interviewing top farmers, I confess that I was impressed by ‘neat and tidy’ but, as my journey into sustainable agriculture has progressed, I am more impressed by what’s easy on my heart, rather than my eye – nature, and a respect for balance. There’s a big difference between neglect and wholistic farming. And so, their warning about an unphotogenic farm makes me excited to find out more about their way of farming.
Soil health is where their focus lies right now. They are committed to a biological way of farming and have a big task attending to the earth that has been farmed for many years. Already, there are improvements in that the good soil fungi are increasing, the earth worms are reappearing and the microbial life is starting to thrive. While they know this route is hard slogging now, they look forward to nature’s inherent controls taking over to maintain a balance, without them needing to intervene chemically.
As most of us know, the Umzimkulu sugar mill is now permanently closed. This was Jaff’s closest mill. Cane is now delivered to Sezela mill which is a significant distance away, placing further pressure on the long-term outlook for sugar on this farm. They have managed to improve yields since taking over the farm but it still doesn’t compete with the returns from macs and bananas.
These Jaffs have also integrated back a step, into nurseries for both the bananas and macadamias. The success has been very encouraging, especially since they started syncing the timing of the grafting with the full moon. Yes, you read that right – the moon! This is not the first time I have heard of significant agricultural improvements when practices are aligned to lunar phases. Mrs Jaff (who takes leadership in the nurseries) reports a drastic improvement since they started this. The success was so marked that event the staff have bought in – they now watch the calendar carefully and plunge into top productivity during the first week before the full moon.
A cane farming relative bought into this concept and has since reported significantly reduced eldana issues now that he plants in the appropriate moon phase.
Banana seedlings growing to the point where they’re ready to plant out.
Another factor behind the impressive nursery performance has been in root treatments – this has been a game changer in the bananas especially. Since embarking on the use of these biological products, they have spent a lot less on plant recovery and replanting. (Madumbi)
The goal is to have 100 hectares of producing macs. Right now, there are 70.7 hectares planted but only 26 hectares are producing. Five of those are 23 years old – the result of an uncle who wanted to get into the export market back in the late 90s when the political climate was shaky (shakier?). These orchards are 344 and Beaumont.
About 7 years later further orchards were planted – Beaumonts, 816s and 788s – but nothing more until 2015 when the 788 complement was increased.
In 2018, when our young Jaffs took over, the planting continued. 40% of the farm is now 788 and they are proving their worth.
Here are some 344s and Beaumonts, showing off …
The results off this ‘recovering’ farm are brilliant and made me want to go back and just clarify exactly what each of the ‘measurements’ mean.
On this farm, average TKR across all cultivars was 41,9% last year. The 788s are mostly planted in really poor shale soils. Jaff has been supplementing with large amounts of compost and has turned the TKR on 788s from 37/38% to 45% – truly remarkable and a testament to the value of prioritising soil health.
Sound kernel across the whole farm 38,5%. The young 816s give SK recovery rates of 42% so they’re definitely putting more of those in! The nursery is busy grafting 814s on to Beaumont root stock – this cultivar is quite tricky to graft and success rates are not high whereas the 816s take easily, so whatever fails as an A4, will come back and be regrafted with 816. A4 is always ‘Plan A’ as, on this farm, they start to produce than 816, they can also yield impressive TKR.
Beaumonts are a base-line on this farm and will always be a part of the mix. The 23-year olds average 5,9t/ha (DIS at 4% moisture) and gave a reliable 38,5% sound kernel in the 2019 season; 2020 saw a slight reduction on this excellent result.
344s produce 6t/ha, wet in shell (6,2% moisture)
The nursery is proving to be very successful under the curatorship of Mrs Jaff. The first trees are coming in to production and it looks like the yield will justify all the hard work she’s invested.
The process is fairly simple and illustrated in the pics below:
- Beaumont seeds are selected from their own healthy, high bearing trees and placed on their sides, so that the cracking line is horizontal, in the sand seed beds.
- Seedlings’ tap toots are trimmed and they are given Multicote 8 (for more info on this controlled-release nutrient solution, click here) when planted out into the bags. A combination of pine bark, river sand and lime makes up the growing medium.
- Grafting is done the week before full moon and nutrition is topped up with Multicote 4 (for more info on this controlled-release nutrient solution, click here). The soil is further supplemented with additives to boost microbial life.
- The ‘take’ has increased 300% since adopting lunar synchronisation. Mrs Jaff will be testing the theory that A4s graft better, in November, this year.
- Here are some 816s hardening off in the sun.
All budwood, tape and tools are bathed in sanitiser to prevent any infections.
The Nursery is working on refining micro-grafting and doing some top-working on individual mature trees that would otherwise be replaced.
This is one of the first A4s that came out of Mrs Jaff’s nursery. They are unirrigated. At just 2 years old, the extent of flowering and even nuts is really impressive!
As Mr & Mrs Jaff have been doing a lot of this since they arrived, they have a lot to share – in both hard lessons and successes:
- Interrow decisions are made – either bananas or a summer mix of sunflower, sorghum, hemp and perennial grasses. Bananas help with cashflow while the summer mix boosts the ecosystem. To get the best of both they are considering alternating bananas and summer mix throughout the orchard ie: one row bananas, one row summer mix. This will also facilitate orchard access, which is difficult when bananas are used exclusively.
- The field is marked out for an 8m x 4m spacing.
- Ripping: The Jaffs have made a specialised attachment for their TLB. It is used to rip the row and raise the beds. The operator spends extra time on the area into which the tree will be placed (every 4m) to make sure the soil is loose.
- Ridging: Initially they were raising beds too high with the result that they dried out too quickly. Now they build slight ridges, except where it is very steep and only contour cuts are possible.
- Time: They’ve learnt that there is value in letting the soil rest and rehabilitate after ripping and raising beds and before planting the new trees. All the subsoil life has literally been turned upside down and it needs to recover and regain a measure of healthy activity before the young tree is added to the dynamic.
- Hole prep: A hole the size of the bag is dug into the rested bed. ‘Ice’ (aka hydrogel) is placed in the hole. The bottom of the nursery bag is cut off, the tap root trimmed (for the second time) and the tree is placed in the hole. The rest of the bag is slipped ‘over the head’ and the young tree is bedded down and watered, making sure that all large air pockets are pushed out.
- Mulch and stake: Shavings from the local horse stables are spread around the tree base and it is tethered to a strong stake.
- First prune: Once the tree has ‘taken’ (about one month after planting), the top growth is cut back to prevent wind damage and stimulate lateral growth.
- Weed out the weaklings: at this point, any trees that are not shooting will be replaced ensuring that only strong, healthy trees are given further investment.
A new (just under 2 years old) A4 orchard
Before you judge the growth around this youngster, read the section under Pests 😅. Also, this is the highest point on the farm, subject to extreme winds that damage the new trees unless they are sheltered.
This hillside has recently been cut in anticipation of a new orchard. It is very windy and they will need to establish some cover before installing the young trees.
Here is the hard-working TLB that rips and ridges. This same, custom-made implement is used to loosen the soil in the established orchards. It opens up the soil down each row and between each tree as a part of their rehabilitation programme which sees tons of compost going into the lands. 788s that were ‘ripped’ and opened up (pruned) last year have doubled in size since then. These Jaffs have proven that ripping and pruning established orchards is key to their recovery.
Here they use plastic to tie the trees to the stake. This does not cut into the tree stem and breaks down within about 6 months, which is perfect timing for the tree to be released from the stake. I’m sure you’ll agree that this is an impressive stem size for a 2-year-old mac.
When winds consistently reach 40 to 50kms per hour from August to November, the farmers have been forced to focus on anchoring their trees – literally! Root strength and health is dependent on the environment in which they are placed. The poor soils and lack of supplementation has resulted in weak root systems on many of the trees so this the major area of focus for Jaff.
While composting and other soil improvement programmes are prioritised, they still need to break the gale forces above ground; this is done by leaving interrow growth to ‘go wild’. The farm is only mowed once a year, in November and December. The obvious benefits are that beneficial insects thrive in the protected environment between mowings and organic material supplements the soil content when it is cut down.
Here we can see a (very pretty) summer mix between the freshly ripped rows.
Obviously some sort of maintenance is required in certain areas and they have a few helpers on probation for this job; Meat Master sheep. Although they’re too new on the farm to know if this strategy will work out, they are preferable to herbicides.
Meet the farm’s newest crew; recently employed to EAT – as much as they can, as quick as they can. (weeds only please maa’aam)
When it hasn’t been done properly, it shows. The Jaffs are struggling with some trees that are up to 8m tall. Considering that the soil has been poor, that’s an impressive height.
The Jaffs advise not to be scared to cut back well when pruning. They have seen the life that light and warmth has brought to their overgrown orchards. The goal, after all, is nuts, not leaves. Harsh prunings on 344’s have yielded high returns for them. Some 788 trees had not been pruned for 15 years and were full of ‘dead’ wood but, as soon as those branches got the light and air they needed, they revived and started producing. One such orchard of 788s produced 11,3 tonnes in 2019, pre-pruning and then went on to deliver 15,2 tonnes in 2020, after a good prune – a 35% increase!
To start with, the young trees are cut back after just one month of being planted out. This is to stimulate lateral growth and minimise wind damage. Thereafter they are looked at and trimmed if necessary, every 3 months. This may sound excessive and unsustainable in a large operation but we must remember that wind is a big factor here and makes it essential that the trees are carefully trimmed to build strength in both the branches and the roots. The Jaffs will happily sacrifice a year’s growth to build wind resistance. They have learnt to avoid ‘Vs’ in the trees’ structure; ‘L’ shaped joins are far stronger.
Mature trees are pruned after every harvest. Skirt height is not an issue and the Jaffs monitor that orchard by orchard. Bearing wood is generally lower on these trees and it makes no sense to cut that unnecessarily.
This tree needs pruning attention to open up a few windows.
A branch that was previously ‘dead’ because of the lack of light in the tree is showing signs of life after the pruning.
No lack of water here! The Uvongo river runs around the farm and the Ugu municipality fills the middle. No, really! There’s been a leak from one of the municipal pipes traversing the farm for YEARS. The Jaffs have reported it (without effect) so many times that they’ve now built a dam to retain it.
Recently constructed and aptly named ‘Leak dam’.
I empathise with farmers from other areas who are envious of the high humidity here on the South Coast – it hovers around 85% most of the time which means happy macs.
Microjet irrigation is used to keep the root zones moist but the Jaffs don’t make a complicated science of keeping the trees hydrated. They have learnt that they have to be careful not to over-irrigate the 816s planted in shaley, dwyker soils and that it is best to keep this cultivar in the drier areas of the farm (remembering that ‘dry’ is a relative concept here).
There are no mechanical probes on this farm. Instead they use their hands to feel through the compost layers around the trees – as soon as that gets dry, they’ll irrigate for an hour or two. They are intentionally restricting irrigation to these upper layers to encourage feeder roots to come up, out of the poor soils, into the rich compost.
Slashed growth from the interrow is thrown under the trees by the mower (see video below). In the picture above you can see how they have just tried to improve drainage and soil aeration in these fields by creating ditches along the row.
These are 15-year-old 788s that Jaff is doing a moisture inspection on. Their small size is as a result of the poor soils and lack of nutrition. The care over the last 3 years has seen remarkable improvements.
PEST & DISEASE MANAGEMENT
The number one pest on this farm has TWO legs! Once invasion saw an entire field – 180 Nelmak 2 trees, that Mrs Jaff had carefully cultivated for over a year in her nursery, stolen!
The next time you are driving down the freeway, judging the ‘shocking’ cane fields (as I do) consider for a moment that they might just be hiding some very young mac trees from treacherous two-legged pests. Bet you can’t spot them in this pic …
Here, I’ve zoomed in for you … notice that Jaff even goes to the trouble of painting the trees blue, both above and below the graft, so that, if stolen trees are recovered, they have some way to identify them.
Fencing is on the cards but we all know how ineffective those can be. 24-hour armed guards monitor the farm but they, too, are only human.
On to the six-legged pests … Thrips has been bad lately and they’re hoping that the summer mix planted in interrows and resting fields will help to 1. draw the pests away from the macs and 2. provide a home for natural predators. They’ve also tried biological sprays which have had a marginal effect. They dread having to use Plan C (the dreaded broad-killer-chemicals) but fear it may be time.
There is hope in that Thrips are attracted to stressed trees and these trees have been stressed for years so, hopefully, as the soil (and other) issues are corrected, the trees will settle and the thrips threat will decrease.
Extensive thrips damage can be seen on this flush.
Stink bugs are manageable. Yes, I had to double check my hearing on this – all the time in Limpopo has made me fearful of the number one threat up north – but I do hope that our KZN farmers have taken note of the uncontrolled scourge these pioneer farmers are now struggling with and don’t rest too easy … the grandfathers of the industry are warning us to handle stink bug differently to how they did, lest we pay the price they are. For now, these Jaffs are scouting and following a flexible monthly spray programme. They combine these chemicals with nutrition-based foliar sprays.
Moth populations are kept under control through orchard sanitation (picking up fallen nuts asap). They have traps for FCM and MNB, to monitor numbers.
Because of the many steep slopes, normal spray rigs cannot be used. Instead they have tanks with 60m long pipes. The tractors park on the closest road and the spray team lance-spray trees individually.
I can imagine many of you shuddering at the reliance on operator skill – Jaff is very grateful for the high quality of staff they have.
Phytophthora is a problem here and there. Jaff has tried many symptomatic remedies but nothing is helping as much as cutting back the tree and fixing the soil. The natural fungi introduced through compost are doing a great job of beating back the disease.
Most of us would have given up on this one but the composting regime is bringing it back from the edge – zoom in the see new growth.
This farm is lucky to have buck, including Nyala. To protect young trees from their damage, Jaff would put small screens around them but this served to point out new plantings to the two-legged tree thieves. Now that they have chosen to obscure new plantings with vegetation, the buck damage has gone down, even without screens – we assume that there is now enough other vegetation to have a good scratch on. Copper oxychloride and pva is used to seals any wounds that are inflicted on new trees.
Beneficial insect life has been boosted through careful use of chemicals and the planting of cover crops. Here is a spider, caretaking this bunch of nuts and hopefully feasting greedily on the thrips.
SOIL & NUTRITION MANAGEMENT
The main focus on this farm right now is soil health. It’s going to take a while to restore but the Jaffs are fully committed. Already they are making major strides forward as shown in the yield; one particular orchard went from an average of 7,4kg nuts per tree to 11kg and all they did there was composting.
The fact that there are two quarries on the farm – one blue stone and one plaster sand – gives us a good understanding of what Jaff is farming in and why he is so passionate about compost and organic matter.
Take a look at this gradient & the unforgiving earth (not sure we can call that soil?) Shale, Dwyker and TMS has been mined of all nutrients. Compost is brought in by hand, in bags, to these orchards.
- Supplementing with compost is the main activity in restoring the soil. Last year they produced 600 tonnes of compost. Each mature, producing mac tree gets 100kgs annually. They believe in packing the compost full of ‘life’ – lots of microbes from the kraal manure. All the banana waste is also chipped up and added to the pile – perhaps this is why their lands never seem to be short of potassium? Mrs Jaff also put red wrigglers into the compost pile. It gets turned twice a month.
A large load of kraal manure being delivered. This costs R70 per tonne plus transport from Winterton.
Extensive composting and mulching is making a huge difference to the root zone environment.
- Organic matter. There are literally tonnes being added to the orchards, whether grown here or brought in.
Being so close to town can be a blessing – the Jaffs have opened their gates to local tree fellers who drop off garden refuse. This is chipped and added to the compost.
- Resting the land. Cover crops give back some of what the previous crop took from the soil. This is being done extensively across the farm, before new banana or mac orchards are planted.
This cover crop was been planted a month ago – sorghum, sunhemp, sunflower, erograstis, sweet choice and pearl millet.
- Fertilising producing trees. (Agri technovation) supplies a per-block plan based on soil and leaf analyses. Fertiliser is applied 7 times a year; 5 of those applications are 1:0:3 and 2 are 5:0:3 (for this year). The programme begins just after harvest, with 5:0:3, then moves to 1:0:3 plus keylates, according to tree phenology. The schedule given is very detailed and specific to the field, cultivar, age of the trees etc but the general theme was as follows:
- Late stage ripening: nitrogen-heavy NPK plus micro elements (Zinc, boron, magnesium, sulphur)
- Harvest: 3 months of nothing (except that last year they decided to give one application of 5:0:3 during the harvest, to help with energy for flowering – the result has been an excellent flowering – we’ll follow up to see if that all stayed through to nut)
- Flowering: nitrogen-heavy NPK plus micro elements (Zinc, boron, magnesium, sulphur)
- 100% Petal drop / nut set: Less N, no P, more K. Calcium, small amounts of magnesium, sulphur, zinc and a little manganese.
- Early nut development: Less N, no P, more K. Magnesium, Sulphur early in this process.
- Nut growth: Less N, no P, more K. Small amount of Boron and copper
- Fertilising pre-production trees is as follows:
- (Multicote 8) in the nursery (for seedlings)
- (Multicote 4) in the nursery (after grafting)
- No fertiliser for one month after planting into the field
- LAN or CAN applied thereafter, until 4 years old.
Evidence of extensive compost and mulch.
Roots are starting to grow up into the healthy environment created by all the compost and organic matter.
This a 16-year-old 816 that has been in a naturally better soil type since planting. The big nuts seen here are not consistent across all the trees but very impressive nonetheless – they look like small oranges rather than nuts!!
HARVESTING AND PROCESSING
Now, we have some neat stuff to share here … the Jaffs harvest per tree, allowing them to keep incredibly detailed records that will facilitate in sorting out the orchards to the point that they know exactly what is working, why and being able to make sound management decisions based on that. Per-tree harvest records are possible because of the shaker they use. As shown in the videos below, shade cloth is used to collect the nuts. A tractor-powered shaker is attached high up in the tree (to prevent root damage) and a short, sharp shake is given by the PTO-pulled cable. This idea was taken from a machine in Germany where it was designed to harvest apples.
Each season is carefully assessed (field by field) and a decision made as to which method of harvesting would be most efficient in each orchard – the ultimate goal being the most efficient harvest, with minimal nut loss. 2 litres per hectare of ethapon is used throughout the farm, except on 816, which are on the slopes anyway, where the shaker cannot be used.
Where necessary (and accessible), a custom-built trailer is used to reach the remaining nuts in the tree tops at the end of the harvest. It attaches to a tractor with a 3-point linkage. Men stand at the top and use sticks to knock the nuts down. This is ingenious as we all know that stink bugs live in the top of the trees and, by removing the convenient food-stores up there, counts will be reduced.
Tree-top harvest platform.
Where possible, they dehusk the same day as the nuts are harvested. This programme started when they were getting unacceptably high onion rings and has served to reduce this defect. As mentioned, humidity in this area is excessively high and leads to accelerated degeneration.
Another issue they had at one stage was an unacceptably high number of darks. Advisors suggested that they were using too much heat, for too long, in the drying bins. They removed the heat and delivered after one week of drying rather than two, delivering at an in-shell moisture content of between 4,4 to 4,5%. Darks have subsequently dropped from between 9 and 11% to between 2 and 3%. Darks have apparently been an area-wide issue so it may also have been weather-related.
The on-farm processing involves dehusking, tumbling out smalls, sorting, weighing (to get accurate figures per field), drying in the bins followed by another sort before delivery.
And that’s it from the young Mr & Mr Jaff. They were so liberal in sharing everything they’ve learnt whether it was successful or not – and for that we are so grateful. The fact that they’re both fourth generation farmers shone through in their respect for the power of nature and their down-to-earth realistic approach to all challenges. I look forward to watching their success, and the health of their farm, bring due reward for their hard work.