Being on a farm that has passion and purpose as its foundation, rather than financial motivations, makes a lot more difference than I thought it would. There’s a different ‘vibe’ – one that is calm and philosophical – it operates on a different frequency. Here, learning and growing is celebrated for the impact it has on your soul rather than on your bank balance.
Knowing when enough is enough has very little to do with how much you have; typically, humans will keep chasing the almighty dollar into the grave. Some atypical, and very special people, will be able to appreciate their abundant blessings enough to chase passions. It’s on this journey that I encounter Jaff – she is a remarkable lady and I can’t wait to bring you her story …
Just like with the first Cape Jaff, this farm took a long time – 8 years – to come anywhere close to being financially viable. First there was the drought and then Blossom Blight, of which they had never heard before, took them out.
There was actually a lot that Jaff hadn’t heard of before; as the first mac farmer in the area – hers is the oldest mac farm in the southern Cape. She was the one who established this farm and she has no history in the crop. So this lady has learnt A LOT in the last 20 years and, lucky for us, she’s willing to share those learnings …
After completing a BA at WITS, Jaff started her career as an air hostess until she married Mr Jaff who was a commercial pilot with the same airline. She had to resign due to company policy about couples in the organisation. Since then she has dabbled in a number of commercial sectors, from conferencing to signage. They then lived in Mauritius for 5 years while Mr Jaff had a contract there during the sanction years. When they returned to South Africa she was able to spend all her time in her garden and realised how much she loved growing things. The next few years were marked by increasing crime in the area and they became unsettled with “the big smoke” and began looking for something off the beaten path.
This farm, in The Crags, won them over and they moved here in May 1998. Mr Jaff continued to fly and Mrs Jaff would often accommpany him but she also wanted to explore this passion that had been ignited in her Bryanston garden; and now she had hectares to play with! She decided to study horticulture through UNISA.
Half of this degree is of a practical nature so Jaff had to find a qualified horticulturist, in an established nursery, to work alongside and fulfill this requirement. But Jaff didn’t want a “job” and began exploring what else could fulfil this part of the requirement. Perhaps starting her own farming venture from scratch? This was approved and, when Jaff discovered that one of her neighbours was a qualified horticulturist and could “oversee” her “project”, UNISA approved the proposal and Jaff became a farmer … all she had to do now was figure out what to farm!
I guess you’ve figured out what that decision was so I’ll introduce the farm officially:
|Date of visit||6 April 2021|
|Area||The Crags, about 1 hour east of George, Cape Province, RSA|
|Soils||Clay heavy. Some loams but still very heavy.|
|Altitude||400m above sea level|
|Distance from the coast||10kms|
|Varieties||All started as pure Beaumont blocks. Since top-worked in 788, A4, A16, A38.|
|Hectares under mac||4 hectares|
There were early rumblings about macadamias but the only plantings were in Harkerville (between Knysna and Plett) – a nurseryman there had planted a few, claiming that this area is as far south of the equator as Hawaii is north so there should be no reason why the trees wouldn’t grow well here. Jaff decided that nut tree orchards would work well with her lifestyle of regular travel as they could be left for up to 10 days at a time without too much going wrong so she dived in …
Jaff and her right-hand man planted every tree themselves. This man and Jaff still farm alongside each other, 20+ years later.
Jaff ordered her trees from White River and began to land prep 2 hectares. They were advised to plant Beaumonts (as they’d have the best chance against the Cape winds) at 5m x 3m (750 trees per hectare) with the plan to thin the orchard out later.
In 2006 Jaff visited the Eastern Transvaal to learn more about mac farming and realised that her 5 year old trees were about half the size of the ones there and that she may not have to thin out if their growth rate remained ‘stunted’. As mentioned in the previous Cape stories, the winds here are not violent enough to cause storm-related mechanical damage (In 20 years Jaff has only ever seen one tree split by the wind and even that one was repaired and continues to yield) but it does seem to ‘stunt’ the growth.
In 2002 Jaff bought a neighbouring farm and planted an additional hectare in 2003. Then, in 2005, they planted the last orchard, also a hectare. They consider themselves ‘hobby’ farmers – saying that they do the same things that bigger farms do, just on a different scale.
These younger orchards were spaced at 6m x 3m. If she could go back, or advise a new farmer, she’d recommend 7m x 5m spacing for this climate and size farm.
In this pic you can see the 5m x 3m spacing, the ridges and, Jaff adds, the need to prune!
This year they’ve had quite a few January-days in the 30s. The summer days are long, with daylight from around 5am until 8pm. This gives the trees more “factory time” but doesn’t make the nuts ripen any faster. The seasons seem to be “later” with summer only starting on 16 December (according to Jaff ). She explains that, up until then, the temps never seem to exceed 24/25°C.
The winters are similarly “late”, extending into August.
Winds are constant but not violent. As this farm is only about 10kms from the shore, the wind does carry some salt and the Beaumonts show signs of salt burn. The 788s are far more tolerant of this salty breeze and don’t exhibit the same symptoms.
Jaff estimates the wind-speed extremes to be about 40kms/hour on this farm. Wind breaks are both helpful and harmful but overall, essential. Jaff has chosen to use Casuarinas or, as they are known in these parts, Beefwoods.
The first row of macs under the Beefwoods struggle. Jaff has found that, if they a trench between the beefwoods and the macs, to break the beefwood roots, every few years, it does have a beneficial effect on the struggling macs. This was done last year and the macs are already looking better.
Very unhappy trees in the first row alongside the Beefwoods. Jaff has recently added another dripper to each tree to try and compensate for the thirsty wind-break.
Signs of recovery on these trees – ordinarily, Jaff would not allow these vertical shoots to stay but these trees are under special care. She is doing what she feels best by allowing them to recover health before training them to produce.
Winds off the ocean carry salt and this does burn the leaves, as shown in the picture below:
In this cooler climate, it is more important to make the best use of sunlight by planting north-south rows. It’s not always possible, given the aspect of most farms in the area but this one has a nice flat landscape, so they’ve managed.
Another peculiarity of the region is that there is no November dump. Yes, I also did a double take at that statement. No one is sure why. Initially they speculated that it was because they weren’t getting the production from the trees that other regions, who suffer the phenomena, do. But last year’s crop was on that level (4 tonnes per hectare on this farm) and there still wasn’t a dump to speak of.
Most of the soils here are only 1/2m deep, with a thick layer of clay found at this depth, so Jaff has always had to be very careful not to pull the clay up into the root-zone when prepping the land.
If Jaff had to do it all again, she would certainly space differently, going for 7m x 5m on this size farm. As mentioned in the Intro, the older orchards here are 5m x 3m.
Jaff would also introduce other cultivars into the mix, rather than planting pure blocks. Although she is not convinced of the direct effect on the Beaumont harvest (she only planted Beaumonts initially) she is impressed by what the other cultivars are producing.
Another thing Jaff would do differently is resting the soil before planting. Her advice to new farmers: after prepping, correcting imbalances and ridging etc., rest the soil for a full season. Do another soil sample, make the necessary corrections and then plant.
YOU ONLY GET ONE CHANCE TO PREP PERFECTLY
As mentioned, all Jaff’s orchards were pure Beuamont blocks. She sourced grafted trees from a nursery in White River.
She literally planted them all herself – digging the holes, cutting the bags, slashing the roots (to prevent them staying in the circular growth pattern they might be locked into from the round bag), sprinkling a little fert in the holes and bedding them down. They then used the plastic bag, that the trees came in, to place on the soil around the stem. They then covered the whole ridge with additional plastic. The idea was to help conserve water but Jaff has found more disadvantages than advantages; the result was compacted soil, devoid of organic matter. She has since removed all plastic and has an deliberate mulching programme.
Jaff also opted to remove all flowers from the young trees for the first three years, and this is something she DOES recommend as it promotes vegetative growth which will set the young macs up for the long term.
For 8 to 10 years after establishing her mac farm, Jaff did not get a decent harvest. The trees looked beautiful, “Like the SAMAC magazine cover,” says Jaff, “but nothing ever set!!” After investigating all the probable causes, they decided that they needed bees.
And so the ‘bee-man’ brought in bees. Yield around the hives improved, but only up to about 4 trees away. When querying this, the bee-man explained that domestic bees are lazy; they’ll go up and down a row rather than through the rows and across the inter rows. So Jaff ordered more hives for the next season. The bee-man investigated and declined saying that there are enough wild bees on the farm; she didn’t need more from him. So, the problem was never a lack of bees.
Another proposed solution was to introduce cross-pollen. A number of the younger farmers, including Jaff 17, whom you’ve just read about in last month’s story (link), were insisting that this was the answer. Although she was sceptical, she starting grafting other cultivars onto her trees.
Under Jaff 17’s guidance, they grafted 275 trees, to introduce some cross pollen. They used the block method, detailed in his story, and had a 100% take.
I’ll allow her to explain the process: “We collected ‘stokkies’ from ‘Jaff 17’ and prepared them the same night by cutting the step, wrapping them up in plastic and putting them in the fridge. Early the next morning, we grabbed our cooler boxes, carpet knives and tape. The first graft must have taken half an hour!” she laughs, “we used Jaff 17’s block grafting method but only did one per cut branch.” (Jaff 17 did several per branch to increase his success rates per re-grafted tree).
“We positioned the new graft so that it would become the main branch of that tree but we did not remove anymore than that one main branch (onto which the graft was done) on each regrafted tree,” explains Jaff, “the remaining Beaumont branches, of the original tree, were only removed after the new graft was established and strong – a few seasons later.”
Jaff decided to regraft every third tree in every second row. They used 788 for no other reason than that was what Jaff 17 recommended and was willing to share. In hindsight, she would not choose that cultivar again. When I asked what she would choose, she’s not entirely set on another specific one but says that there are others that have performed better on this farm. Due to orchard spacing the 788s tend to be very tall, vertically-inclined trees.
Jaff has grafted in October and also in Feb/March and says that there was no marked difference in results with regards to the timing – they both seemed to take an excruciatingly long time to shoot.
Since this initial regraft, they have also done some with A4, A16 and A38. Of them all, Jaff says that the A4 and A38 have been impressive in terms of their production but she’s still not convinced that they’ve helped her poor Beaumont yields. “Beaumonts are patchy bearers,” she frowns, “so, when they do yield well, I never know if it is as a result of the cross-pollen because the next year, it’s a completely different story!”
The original block graft scar is still evident, 6 1/2 years later. You can also see how strong this graft is.
A4 graft – Jaff says that, in hindsight, she should have done the grafts lower. You can see, in this tree, how high the “new tree” sits.
A4 ‘pollinator’ with an impressive yield of its own.
Beaumont on the right hand side, foreground. 788 on the left. “Grafted 788s are much taller than the Beaumonts and they always look healthier,” says Jaff.
This is an A38 ‘pollinator’. It is the first year it’s produced this well but is enough to encourage Jaff to graft more of this cultivar – not so much for the pollen but for the nuts (the Beaumonts on either side of this tree are low on yield this year).
Jaff has both micros and drippers and is therefore in a good position to advise on the features of both. Her micros deliver 97l per hour while the drippers put out 21l per hour. All trees get the same amount of water though; it’s just delivered differently. She really doesn’t see any difference in the yield between the different types of irrigation.
This stands for the dryland trees as well. They have 7 rows of macs that fall beyond the reach of any irrigation system so these are a good comparison. Although these trees get the odd bucket of water when it comes to feeding time (some of Jaff’s nutrition programme is fertigation-based so, rather than run a different programme for these trees, they are just given their quota dissolved in a bucket of water). Makes you think, when the dry-land trees perform as well as the irrigated ones …
They irrigate from the two dams on the farm. These are only fed by rain water.
Micro-irrigation sprinkler – there are two per tree.
Dryland macs – yield is the same as their irrigated siblings.
Drippers – Jaff prefers them above ground, like this, rather than “inline” where you can’t see clearly if they’re working.
Drip irrigation and bigger (6m) spacing in this orchard.
NUTRITION & SOIL CARE
Jaff’s soil is very clay-heavy. There are a few patches of loams but even they are very heavy. She has to supplement with mulch and compost as often as possible. There’s an elephant sanctuary nearby and they swop trees for poop. Yes, really … there are a number of indigenous trees (Boekenhouts, stinkwoods, waterbellies etc.) that pop up all over the farm. Jaff digs these up, bags them and swops them for elephant poop. The elephant sanctuary is always rehabilitating their land with new trees.
This rich resource is added to the compost pile that also has husks, reject nuts, grass cuttings and chipped prunings. Last year they managed to create about 6 tonnes of valuable compost that, once mature, was used around the trees.
NPK is applied granularly. Other macro- and micro- nutrients are also applied this way or through the irrigation system or through foliar sprays. When deciding when and what to use, Jaff relies on her “fertiliser guys” because she believes they have the expertise to interpret the soil and leaf samples better than she can. She doesn’t always agree with their recommendations as she knows her trees and soils better than they do but they’ve reached an understanding and she’s happy with what they’ve been doing lately.
Foliar sprays are applied with a radial sprayer mounted onto a small tractor they bought from a citrus farmer.
When Mr Jaff flew over the orchards, he would always notice a patch that was yellow. This remained a mystery for years but they now know that there is a constant magnesium shortage there. Why? No one knows but 25kgs per hectare every second week keeps it happy.
Jaff explains that this is what the magnesium shortage “looks like”.
This last lot of soil samples just came back saying they need iron – she’s not sure what’s happening there.
I’ve always wondered how a farmer decides which delivery method is best. Jaff explains the process she follows: Foliar feeds are for micros or short term fixes. If the tree is sensitive to any element, it is better to feed through the roots. Boron is one that Jaff never applies on the leaves. One year Jaff was away and had left instructions on what the staff needed to apply in her absence. The instructions were to apply a lower dose of Boron to the younger orchards and a higher one to the older orchards (fertigated). Three weeks later the younger trees started turning yellow. Jaff scrambled to find out what was happening … by the time she figured out that the staff had decided that the younger trees could get the same dosage as the older trees, the damage had been done. It took many months and corrective interventions to rescue them and they didn’t need boron again for 4 years after that.
Jaff has also experienced a manganese deficiency in the past. Lots of learning later they discovered that it may have been a result of too much calcium rather than a lack of manganese.
Fert tank ready to add nutrients to the irrigation water.
Jaff advises that Calcium and Zinc are applied before the flowers open because the cells around the raceme are strengthened with these minerals.
Young trees are given a kelp foliar feed. Jaff reminds us that when roots are still young and not well established feeding through the leaves is often a more effective way to deliver essential nutrients.
Jaff also believes in encouraging micro-organisms in the soil and invests in products that stimulate this, is part of their programme.
Jaff’s husband secured this spray machine with a radial fan from a manufcturer in Humansdorp. At R56k it was far more attractive than the Italian version, at R120k.
PRUNING & ORCHARD MAINTENANCE
Although Mother Nature keeps these Cape trees smaller, the dense planting and the fact that Jaff never removed any trees from the original 5/6m x 3m plantings means that Jaff has to stay on top of pruning. Her aim is to keep the height down to 4m which the 788s need to be reminded about more often than the Beaumonts.
The general method is to take an old, big branch out every year. They recently invested in a motorised pole saw which has made the job far easier. Jaff doesn’t really worry to skirt, only if the branches touch the ground; if this happens, she’ll cut them up to knee height.
When it comes to training a young tree, the practice is to remove all branches below knee height with the intention of creating a tree rather than a bush. From there they select a leader and develop that, making sure all other branches grow horizontally, into productive wood. Jaff explains that, over time, the leader changes.
Jaff explains that this is an example of poor pruning/training of a tree from young. “It is not suffering now but at some point, one of these leaders will have to go.” And half the canopy with it …
Herbicides (glyphosates) are sprayed once a year to keep mostly the blackjacks and uintjies under control. Jaff is cautious about this chemical and sprays it directly on to the individual weeds with a hand gun.
Jaff explains that this tree needs a good prune this season; one of the central leaders will be removed.
PEST & DISEASE CONTROL
Jaff sprays 3 times a year for blossom blight; once every 3 weeks in August/September. This fungus is particularly prevalent in the Cape, no doubt encouraged by the wet, cool weather. It becomes a problem with the constant flowering characteristic of Beaumonts as Jaff experienced in January this year when the Beaumonts flowered heavily (again). She’s waiting to see if the nuts will set. Even if they do, she’s not sure how much the stinkbugs will leave for her … it’s too late to spray now because the residues will be present in the first harvest nuts.
Jaff sprays 3 to 4 times a year for stinkbugs; end Oct, end Nov, end Dec and sometimes again at the end of Jan depending on how developed the nuts are. All sprays are done at night. Most of the damage is late in the season. This year she’s seen a very low presence but they’ve continued with the prescribed spray plan.
Jaff does have some nut borer presence but not enough to warrant poisons.
Thrips does not seem to be a problem. Every now and then there’s a little damage on the husks but Jaff doesn’t believe this compromises the nut size or quality. Wisely, Jaff believes that spraying poisons would probably cause more issues than the thrips present.
High clay soils typically have poor drainage which creates an anaerobic environment conducive to phythophtora. Although this bacteria is not a dire problem, Jaff applies Fulvic acid to encourage beneficial organisms that will keep the natural balance healthy.
Bushpigs have become a problem. They have a weakness for macadamias and will go to great lengths to get to them. Initially this was a blessing because they cleaned up the old nuts lying on the ground. Then they started using the trees to sharpen their tusks, causing damage, and pulling the nuts off the trees. Now they’ve become a pest!
They have now put a low electric fence around the whole farm to keep the pigs out. You can see this in the bottom left hand corner of the picture above. Also visible in this picture is the ditch that was dug to break the beef wood roots.
HARVEST & YIELD
The 2020 harvest was amazing. Not only did Jaff achieve an impressive yield (17 tonnes @ 3% moisture from the 4 hectares … Over 4 tonnes per hectare!!), it was also an award-winning quality (unsound kernel of just 0,54%) as was recognised by GFNC in their annual awards.
Jaff’s support team were very happy about the award – it has motivated them to go for the Number One spot!
This season (2021) they have far fewer nuts but they are much larger so Jaff is still hopeful of a good result.
Jaff does not believe in ethapon, prefering instead to knock the nuts off manually. They use casuals from the local village. I was impressed with the simple, but clever, motivation they employ: they need only 6 to 12 people, depending on the crop. Two teams are formed, under the leadership of the farm’s two main men. At the end of every day they check the bags collected by each team and everyone in the winning team gets an extra R50 that day. Sometimes it is so close and the enthusiasm so passionate that they have to weigh the harvest.
Last year they picked for 14 weeks, starting in the 2nd or 3rd week of May.
This is the picking tool that the harvesters use on the Beaumonts. It looks a bit short and Jaff explains that some of the smaller guys climb into the higher branches. Whilst this gets the nuts out, it does result in some accidental pruning.
These empty racemes illustrate a lot of what Jaff’s orchards look like this year – prolific flowering that has come to nothing.
Jaff is very happy with the size of her Beaumonts this year but the volume is down remarkably.
788 nuts are more rugby ball-shaped than the Beaumonts which tend to be more soccer-ball in shape.
The last 3 years have been 18 tonnes, 16 tonnes and then 21 tonnes (wet in shell) respectively. This year Jaff is not expecting much more than 10 tonnes but says that the nuts are much larger – this grade of nut could earn a higher per kg price and make up for the lower volume.
Why has the yield been so low? Jaff shakes her head – who knows! Perhaps the extra overcast weather resulted in lower bee activity, which would result in poor pollination. Whatever the reason, she’s not too depressed, “We won’t pick for a full 14 weeks which will save some money. I can also get in to do a decent prune, clean up nicely and prepare for the next season. I may even graft some more trees. At the end of the day, it might be a blessing.”
When we discussed results Jaff explains that the award they got is nothing to do with their farming, it is all about the sorting. So what can she teach us in this department? … they pick in the mornings and then start dehusking after lunch. While some casuals keep on picking, the two team leaders become processors – one feeding the dehusker and the other standing in as the last line of defense after two casuals sort ahead of him. Jaff does not put the nuts through a bath.
Andrew is looking at some of the early harvest nuts after they’ve been dehusked.
Jaff has 3 three-ton bins through which ambient air is circulated.
Being a small farmer and being so far away from the closest processor has certainly had its challenges; in the early years Jaff was quoted more for transport than the nuts were worth. Eventually the most cost-effective way to get them to the processor was through Biddulphs – the household removal company!
There are some farmers I could stay with for days … this Jaff is one! But all good things come to an end and it was time for me to get going back to George. Thank you Jaff for an incredible day! Your wisdom is going to bless many eager farmers.
Next month the TropicalBytes article is on Soils … I’ve been trying to write it for almost a year now. Many of you who were/are in sugar will know a very special soil scientist from SASRI who retired a few years back – earlier this year, I asked him to proof read it and he unapologetically told me the article needed “substantial panel-beating” . I have done my best and will be running it through a few more specialists before publishing but it is a comprehensive, meaty load of information that may come in handy as we all try to understand the magic that brown stuff conjures up.
If you’d like to secure a permanent advert (and link to your website) on this article, let me know by 20 Sept. Advertising Options. Email Debbie: firstname.lastname@example.org
Until then, be safe.