Before we get into today’s story, I want to tell you about a new service in the market: ORCHARD PROTECTION SOLUTIONS. KZN-based, they are provide shade-net solutions for any crop, in any area. Although they began by meeting the needs of the booming blueberry industry, farmer demand has drawn them into tree crops like avos. The solutions this cover has for macadamias is very intriguing and the reason why I am sharing with you … read more here.
Picture courtesy of Kobus Geldenhuys
I remember a few years back, when someone said there are people farming macs in the Cape. The expression accompanying the statement was one best described as ‘concerned disbelief’ and so, I shrugged it off as something temporary. Surely they wouldn’t succeed? Is it even a subtropical climate down there?
Roll around to 2019 when I attended an industry prize-giving event … some of the awards went to Cape farmers and my interested was re-piqued. Kobus, the Cape GFNC consultant, was at the event and he offered to show me just how well these way-down-south orchards were doing … and there began the planning for my next road-trip …
2021, Easter weekend (no, I have no idea where 2020 went and I am NOT going to look for it!), a way-before-the-crack-of-dawn start and 1300kms to go … off we set.
Here are some “road trip” pictures and videos to share the epic journey:
The beautiful open road. The weather and scenery makes it a privilege to live in this country.
When this hangs in the sky, on an Easter weekend!! 😳
Padstaal (translation: roadside shops) highlights.
Overnight on a friend’s cattle farm in Dordrecht.
The Beervlei Dam is a dam in the Groot River, between Willowmore and Aberdeen. I had never seen such a dry dam before but some research turned up that the main purpose of the dam is to provide flood absorption. The Karoo sediments in the area contain a lot of salts and it has been found that lengthy storage of water results in high water salinity. Any flood water is used as quickly as possible by the downstream irrigators and the reservoir is kept empty for extended periods.
There was a bit on the news about the locust swarms near Graaf-Reinet – I got to experience a few! The invasions started in March and have caused significant problems for these farmers. It seems it is worse this year because of the better rains last season.
Top of the Outeniqua pass.
The trip was long but surprisingly easy. I really do love our beautiful country and its people, warts and all!
I visited 5 farms during my week here; from the most western mac farm in the Cape, which is in Robertson (except for one farm on the west coast, in Vredendal) through to The Craggs, east of George.
Every single one was fascinating and I plan to bring you detail on the experience at each farm in their own, individual stories, but here are some tantalisers:
Day 1 – Wilderness was (thankfully) a short drive from George and was the site of the first Cape Jaff I visited. He is a well-known and highly respected farmer who brought all his knowledge and expertise from years of mac-farming in Limpopo and refined it to succeed in Cape conditions. It wasn’t without truckloads of school fees though – so much so that this farmer had to seek an income outside of his farm for many years before he finally cracked mac farming in the Cape coast climate. Very interesting …
Day 2 – An insanely scenic drive along the coast brought me to a small farm at The Craggs. This lady-Jaff’s success has surprised even herself! She is a quality award winner yet still considers herself a student and is always looking for ways to improve, without losing sight of the fact that she’s doing this to fulfil a passion for horticulture rather than an interest in the financial rewards. I could easily have stayed here forever!
Day 3 – took me where I never thought I’d go on a mac-farming exploration. It is by far THE most remote farm I have ever visited for TropicalBytes. These resilient farmers face challenges from every angle but still have faith in their beloved macs. They’re inspirational and I can’t wait to bring you details on what they’ve learnt (and are learning …)
Day 4 – By now I have had enough of living in a budget-lodge and of all the driving. And the farm I’d booked to visit today was over 3 hours away from George! The farmer repeatedly told me that he is just a hobby/retired farmer and I started to wonder whether it would be worth the 7 hours traveling … thank goodness I stuck to the plan and made the trek out to Robertson (with the help of Kobus – the amazing Cape consultant and farmer – who had helped me with most of the contacts I was meeting this week) – it was SO worth the trip! Oom Jaff, as this amazing gentleman will be known, with respect to his age and experience, was a double blessing! Although he hails from macadamia royalty, he is a qualified chemical engineer. Since trying to write an article on soils (and the importance of the chemicals therein) I now have immense appreciation for the value of understanding chemistry, especially as a farmer! So, Oom Jaff, his chemistry knowledge and wisdom gained after MANY years on this earth, was a very valuable interview indeed. That, and the fact that he is on one of the most picturesque farms I have every visited.
Day 5 – The biggest farmer I visited all week. This slick, professional, extremely efficient farm was a joy to explore. The Jaff in charge is also ex-Limpopo and comes with generations of experience. He does things properly or not at all. He is also an independent spirit, very capable of forging his own path rather than follow others. He is a well-respected and admired farmer who is called upon by many who are starting to explore macs in the Cape. I was rather puckered by this stage of the trip but remained riveted at all the new learnings gleaned on this farm.
So, what’s fundamentally different in the Cape that led us to believe that macs couldn’t be grown commercially here?
- It’s not sub-tropical.
Although a quick ‘Google’ will show you that climatic borders and classifications are not definitive and sometimes even contradictory, there’s no doubt that the Cape has different climate to the regions where macs have, up until now, been grown commercially with success.
- The rainfall is different.
While an aspect of this all-year-round rainfall is advantageous, the Cape farmers suspect it may be the underlying issue of their most dire challenge … but you’ll have to read the Jaff stories to get more on that drama.
- The Unknown. Perhaps because I’ve come from a sugarcane background, I have this subconscious belief that, if cane grows there, so can macs. When I think Cape, I think wine grapes, not cane and therefore, not macs … but, it only takes someone to try it and succeed to open our minds to the possibilities …(and, by the way, this part of the Cape has traditionally been a big dairy-farming area … not a lot of wine 🤔)
I think sub-climates make all the difference here and, as you can see from the satellite map above, every one of the farms I visited are nestled into the foothills of the mountains. The mountain ranges here are the Outeniqua and Langeberg. Crest those and you’re in the harsh, dry Karoo. Venture too close to the coast and the chill of the Atlantic, favoured by the wine grapes, might be too much for the macs. But, if you find a nice, cosy burrow in the foothills, the macs seem to manage. I am not sure yet whether thrive is the right term but, given the bullish price of this commodity right now, ‘manage’ is good enough!
The oldest commercial orchards in the area are about 20 years old, although that may seem like a long time, most of those years have been spent learning. Now that there are some very respectable results coming from these resilient farmers, the crop is getting a lot of attention down here.
About 900 tonnes were processed, from this region, in 2020. Although there are no cracking facilities in the province, at least three processors have made it very easy for the growers to deliver nuts for processing in their KZN (or further north) plants.
Cape specific characteristics that affect mac farming:
One well-established and experienced grower explained that this is a VERY MARGINAL area; to use his words; “You can see our @r$e very easily”, he goes on to explain that, “you have to figure out what cultivar works in your own specific micro-climate. This is very similar to New Zealand. There are so many cultivars there, many of which are unique to a single farm because they have found exactly what works for them. It’s the same here – the area is too marginal for conventional, broad-based success seen in other regions – you have to find the niche.”
- Year-round rain is a major factor affecting all farmers in the Cape. This has implications for irrigation, fertilising, pollination, fungi and tree phenology.
- Irrigation is optional and seldom used.
- Fertilising is mostly granular because fertigation is a challenge when irrigation is so seldom required.
- Insect activity is affected by the cooler, damper weather. This presents advantages and disadvantages, depending on which insects are being considered:
- Beneficial insects (pollinators in particular) are less active. Coupled with the narrower window in which to pollinate, this can result in very poor yields if the weather is particularly wet.
- Harmful insects will also be less active. This area does not (yet) face the pandemic populations of other macadamia growing regions and hopefully, because of their wetter weather, they will be spared.
- Should insect levels rise though, fungi-based controls might be more effective than they are in the hot, dry regions.
- Harmful fungi and bacteria populations are also affected by the weather, thriving in the damp conditions.
- The timing of the tree phenology is different – the nuts take longer to ripen. The early harvest starts in April, with only the integs being ready. Usually, the Beaumonts are only ready to be sprayed in June. This means that the trees have less time to recover from the previous season before flowering starts again. It also means that there is a narrower window in which to prune and clean up the orchards. (In other areas, harvests start in March and are done by June).
- Environmental management: I had one Cape Jaff comment that his biggest challenge on this farm is keeping the grass down! When it rains most of the year and the temperature is generally quite warm, controlling growth can be a task!
- Constant wind. Whilst it is not the gale-force, tree-breaking blasts that we get on the KZN coast, the constant pressure experienced here in the Cape affects vegetative growth & tree size.
With an average high of 25°C and an average low of 10°C, this is about as temperate a climate as one can get.
Historically, this area has been a big dairy farming area and that leaves the soil high in phosphates. These phosphates inhibit the absorption of iron and creates iron deficiencies in the tree even when there is enough iron in the soil.
Lots of dairy land in and around George.
The soils are also very shallow which means that most orchards need to be ridged and a lot of attention paid to efficient drainage.
On the upside, the free-loading criminals ravaging the industry in other areas have not yet organised themselves here which means that the establishment costs do not need to extend to fencing just yet. Long may it last!
Poor, expensive advice
Something that came up quite often (usually accompanied by a deep sigh) was the fact that there has been a lot of bad advice given to mac farmers in this area. The advice has been expensive, as consultants were one of the first to identify the fresh opportunities opening up in the Cape, but it was not based on local experience because that simply didn’t exist! The lack of this relevant advice has meant that many farmers have had a really rough start, as you will read about in Jaff 17’s story, next month.
Jaff reports very little nut drop here, possibly a result of the more temperate climate. If they happen to have a few unusually hot days in October, there will be a small drop in November but nothing by comparison with what growers experience up north. Dec/Jan sees another small drop but this is more about the nuts running out of space on the racemes.
There are no processing factories set up in the Cape yet – all the nuts are transported to the other provinces. This means that the nuts might be stored for longer than usual. Factor in the wetter weather and you now have a risk for mould in the drying bins. Unless you have a lot of time to wait for ambient air to dry your nuts, it is better to install a heat component into your drying bins.
Cooler weather and persistent winds result in smaller trees which means that pruning is not the mammoth task it has become in other regions. Generally, the trees are easy to maintain under 4,5m in height. Thinning the trees out to allow for adequate penetration is a greater challenge, given the scarcity of warm sunlight.
Apart from that, generalisation is dangerous and the details of each farm’s challenges and successes will be shared starting next month with Jaff 17 … here’s a quick preview:
Originally from Vivo, in Limpopo province, Jaff has been farming macadamias for a long time. His dad was a potato farmer and, initially, Jaff tried to avoid following in his footsteps by doing a Marketing degree after school. That career lasted as long as it took for Jaff to discover that being the captain of his own entrepreneurial skills was what he really wanted and the farm offered the opportunity to explore those. It has never been an easy ride though and, after a particularly rough potato season, Jaff’s dad needed to sell the farm Jaff was to inherit. So Jaff threw everything in and made a long-term commitment to farming by “buying his inheritance” in 1998. And then came the land claims. They were valid claims, that took their toll and eventually drove Jaff consider life away from Levubu. He was 28 at the time and decided it was easier to sell. KZN wasn’t an option because of the prolific land-claims in this province so he headed to the Cape, where land-claims aren’t a thing.
Jaff left Levubu with all the mac trees he had in his nursery.
Read more …. Next month!
- Spatial distribution of temporal precipitation AUTHORS: contrasts in South Africa Christina M. Botai1 Joel O. Botai1,2 Abiodun M. Adeola1