The partnership that made a dream come true

Want to see a true partnership in action between commercial and emerging farmers? Look no further than Witzenberg Partners in Agri Land Solutions (Pals) in Ceres. A ground-breaking private-sector initiative spearheaded by commercial farmers working closely with the local community and the Witzenberg Municipality, this land-reform model has turned up-and-coming farmers like Theo van Rooyen of TRS Farming into global exporters. Theo shared his story with Peter Mashala.

When Theo van Rooyen and his parents arrived in the Koue Bokkeveld in the Western Cape from Williston in the Northern Cape in 1976, he was struck by the beauty of the country’s fruit-farming mecca. His father had landed a job on a local fruit farm in the Witzenberg Valley, about 43km from Ceres. “In the dry Northern Cape I’d only known sheep farming. I didn’t know such beautiful farms existed. I also didn’t appreciate just how lucrative the fruit industry was,” recalls Theo. Yet, true to his roots still, all he wanted to be was a commercial sheep farmer!

As Theo was gradually exposed to fruit farming, however, his view changed. “Due to the political situation back in the day, owning a fruit farm was nothing more than a dream,” he says. The closest to fruit farming Theo could get was to start a business that manufactured bins for fruit harvesting in 2000. Supplying and repairing old harvesting bins took him to every corner of the Ceres Valley – and that is how he heard about a fruit farm for sale in 2015.

There was a pretty big snag, though: Theo didn’t have the money to buy the land! “I had to come up with a plan quickly because I didn’t want to miss this opportunity, so I approached a client of mine in the bin business, Raymond Gibson,” he explains.

Raymond, a commercial farmer whose diverse operation, Howbill Farming, produces mainly apples and pears for the export and local markets, agreed to help and so Theo managed to clinch the farm sale.

“Raymond lent me the money, which secured him a 49% stake in my business, while I kept a 51% controlling share,” Theo says. But Raymond brought a lot more than money to the partnership – he also had world-class infrastructure and outstanding farming skills, and proved to be a great mentor and friend.

Theo van Rooyen, owner of TSR Farming, is also a director of Witzenberg Partners in Agri Land Solutions. He says this initiative matches the right partners who build their relationship on mutual respect and trust.

NO TIME TO WASTE

With all the agreements in place and TSR Farming established, the first 5ha pear orchard was established right away. At 1 481 trees per hectare, this orchard totalled 7 405 trees, one half being Packham’s Triumph and the other half Forelle. Pears take about four years to bear fruit and, as expected, the first harvest in the 2018/19 season wasn’t much to write home about, Theo says. More than anything, it was an opportunity to manipulate the branches. “We harvested about 30 bins of 450kg each, which is a pretty standard yield, and we sold it through the local market,” he explains. The following season the yield improved to 90 bins, which amounted to about 40.5t.

In 2017, Theo planted 3ha of Rosy Glow and Big Bucks apple varieties, which are expected to bear their first fruit this season. “In 2018 we planted another 2ha of apple trees, followed by a further 3ha in 2019,” he explains. This brings to 13ha the total area planted to apples and pears. He says he expects about 10t/ha on the 3ha of apples that come into fruit this season, and once they’ve all matured, between 80 and 110t/ha from the 8ha apples overall.

For Theo, doing things correctly is non-negotiable. “You can only expect to achieve the highest yields if you do the right things at the right times, right from the outset,” he says. His planting distance is 1.5m between the trees on the row and 4.5m between rows. “After that, make sure you don’t let your trees down – give them enough water and fertiliser, and apply the correct pesticides,” he emphasises.

TREE CARE

A pear tree’s first three years is like building a factory, Theo says. The tree needs a lot of energy for growth and to develop strong side branches. Once planting is done before September, routine maintenance includes watering, fertilising and the application of pesticides.

“We also use string to manipulate the trees upwards until they are about three years old,” he explains. Pruning is done in winter and must be finished by September. Other regular tasks include weeding and pruning of branches that grow too low.

Theo insists all these processes should be take place concurrently – one cannot be be prioritised over the others.

“You can’t do something at the expense of something else. Never delay what you should do today. If you must water trees, don’t give it 30% more water the next day. Give the tree the correct amount of water it needs on the day it needs it. When it’s time to thin out trees chemically, you must do it 30 days after the first full bloom, when the fruit is at a specific size”.

Do it any later, he says, and you cannot expect the same results. “If your scouts tell you to spray for certain pests, do it immediately to avoid losing fruit to bite marks.”

Theo says once bees have finished pollination and after fruit has set, you must be very careful not to overburden trees, especially the younger ones.

“When there is enough fruit on the tree, decide how much it can carry.” This depend on whether your branches have developed well enough to carry the load. Even though a mature tree can carry more than 300 individual fruit, he says, he is satisfied if his young trees carry anything between 150 to 180 fruit per tree. “You can hurt the trees by expecting them to carry too much too early, and trees take a long time to recover from such damage if at all.”

Therefore Theo is prepared to take a little less this year until the trees mature enough to carry more. “I will add a little more every year until I average between 60 and 80t/ha for the Forelles.” He’s expecting at least 500 bins or 450t of pears in the coming season, which starts mid-January and ends in April.

COMPETITIVE EDGE

The value of his partnership with Raymond goes further than access to land, finance, mentorship and skills transfer, says Theo. He also gained access to the lucrative export- and local markets developed by Howbill over many years. All fruit is marketed by Goede Hoop Fruit, itself a grower, packer and exporter of fresh fruit and vegetables.

According to Theo, the arrangement with Howbill is so close that they only do their bookkeeping separately. This gives him an enormous competitive advantage. “At harvest, when markets are flooded with fruit, prices drop – but that’s when the Howbill cold-storage facilities give us a huge advantage because we can store our produce until demand picks up again, either locally or international.”

It’s the lack of such sophisticated infrastructure and support that sees many emerging fruit farmers fail in the high-value business of export fruit farming. “I’ve seen many farmers make huge losses simply because they don’t have proper systems. If I had to start again, I wouldn’t even think of doing it without this partnership,” says Theo.

“My advice to any emerging farmer is to link up with a commercial farmer who has all the necessary infrastructure and knowledge.” He is adamant black farmers should understand they need help and identify partners they can trust. The only way is to build relationships with commercial farmers based on mutual respect and trust.

“Having said that, as a black farmer you should also do your homework and know what’s happening in your business. You must know how much fruit you’ve produced, how much is in cold storage and how much has been sold. It’s your business and you must know where your product is destined for, whether it’s the Middle East or Europe.”

PLANS AND PROSPECTS

Theo’s plan is to have about 43ha under apple and pear production when he retires in two years’ time.

“I’m hoping my daughter Theona will then take over the day-to-day management of the farm,” smiles Theo. “She very hands-on and works extremely hard.”

The 43ha will be split equally between apples and pears. “We also plan to introduce bi-colour pear cultivars from next year,” Theo says.

To achieve this, he is constructing a 250 000m3 dam to irrigate the expansion. He hopes the department of water and sanitation will approve his water-licence application and not reduce the capacity he applied for.

Theo says he will still have a role to play as an advisor when he takes a step back. And he never gave up on that childhood dream of becoming a sheep farmer.

“I already have about 150 breeding ewes – just enough so that they don’t require any extra labour or any more of my focus right now,” he explains. He’s also developing a campsite and a 4×4 mountain route.

“That should be enough to keep me busy in my retirement!” he laughs.

Yet his biggest goal now is to pay off the farm and develop it to its full capacity by the time he hands it to his daughter.

“I’m the first farmer in my family. I want to hand over a working and sustainable business to the second generation.”

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