This family’s vegetable farming enterprise in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa has expanded over the past nine years from a quarter hectare to nearly 40 hectares of vegetable production. They attribute their success to their willingness to exceed their customers’ demands and expectations.
As Charlie Malan walks in-between his hydroponic tables laden with pipes all the same length and width, checking the green and red lettuces with an expert eye, his neighbour’s tractors are rumbling through the adjacent citrus orchards.
“Look at the roots on this miniature butter lettuce,” says Charlie, adjusting a drainage pipe on one of the hydroponic pipes by a few millimetres. “Not all lettuce cultivars have such good, healthy root systems, so we can only grow certain cultivars in these hydroponic tunnels.”
Making a success of hydroponic farming requires the finest attention to detail. In sharp contrast to the tractors and their spray pumps, it’s not the magnitude but the precision with which they tackle hydroponics that has brought success for the Malan family.
EVERY FARMING ENTERPRISE CARRIES RISKS
The Malans grow almost a third of their total lettuce crop in nearly 17 km of white hydroponic pipes on less than 5% – 2ha – of their land. Charl Malan, Charlie’s son, says it is the ideal ratio at Waterwiel, the farm where the Malans grew up near Patensie.
“The risks of hydroponic farming are not necessarily fewer, but are rather significantly different to those associated with open-field farming. The benefits of both also differ. So, it’s not simply a case of more money on less land. It’s also an insurance policy and a guarantee that we will meet our customers’ needs,” explains Charl.
The growing season of the lettuces in the hydroponic tunnels under 60% shade cloth is one to two weeks shorter than in the open-field system. Thanks to the controlled climate and the shade cloth’s protection, up to nine lettuce crop plantings per year are possible in the hydroponic system.
“Conversely, we prefer to do no more than two to three lettuce plantings per year in the lands. The plant density also varies between 125 000 plants per hectare (hydroponic) and about 90 000 plants per hectare (open-field system).
“The advantages of hydroponics are thus high production on a small area, easy pest control, the ability to manage your planting time and harvesting periods very carefully and a saving on labour costs.
The major risk is viruses. If we have a virus outbreak, it takes only a day or two before the entire crop in the system is lost. The meticulous management of water quality is also non-negotiable. It is inexcusable to place the entire crop in the hydroponics pipes at risk by adding the incorrect fertiliser mixture to the water,” says Charl.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Charlie initially began the hydroponic system as a hobby. “We were struggling to make money with citrus. To make citrus farming profitable on just 40ha, we had to have the right varieties at the right time. When the time came for change, it was a difficult decision because we couldn’t afford to replace all 40ha in one go.
“From 2001 to 2005, with poor citrus export prices and our outdated citrus cultivars, we had to find alternative sources of income. We started farming with cucumbers after our family on the neighbouring farm began cultivating them. The cucumbers were a success, but it made no sense being our own family’s competitors.
“Then we cultivated flowers, but there is only one Secretary’s Day, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day every year. Running a business for only a few peak times a year didn’t work for us. By then, we had already tested a few lettuce crops in the lands and it looked promising,” says Charlie.
The Malans are not shy to take risks. A 40-ha farm isn’t big enough for both father and son, so after they stopped the flower farming, Charlie decided to start his hydroponics hobby while Charl continued with the lettuce farming.
“I struggled in the beginning. However, things improved after I studied the hydroponics guidelines compiled by Professor Nick Combrink, an expert in greenhouse and hydroponic nutrient solutions associated with the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at Stellenbosch University. Today, 10 years later, we have made many changes as we became more familiar with the system and adapted it to suit our conditions. There’s little in our hydroponic system that is identical to what Nick recommended.
“Hydroponics is an incredibly sensitive system, so if you don’t pay close attention to details and don’t carry out trials, you will struggle to adopt the right practices and make the adjustments needed for your conditions. Through a process of trial and error I now have a system that works perfectly and we are reaping the rewards of our mistakes and steep learning curves,” says Charlie.
WATER MANAGEMENT IS VITAL
One lesson the Malans learned was how to manage the water in the hydroponic pipes. “Water temperature is crucial. It is easy to farm hydroponically if the weather conditions are ideal, such as in spring and autumn. The problem with a hydroponic system comes when there are adverse weather conditions – when temperatures can soar in summer to over 40°C and in winter when they drop to below freezing.
“It took a lot of trials and expensive lessons, but we found the solutions. One of which is to use overhead spray misters to cool down the water. However, there is still room for improvement. We are considering cooling the water in summer and heating it in winter. The high cost of electricity, however, is preventing us from implementing these systems. We are still looking at alternative ways to do so.”
LANDS STILL NECESSARY
Alongside the hydroponic system, a hydroponic bedding system has been installed where the Malans cultivate watercress. They dug trenches for these beds (about 750mm wide, 150mm deep and 12m long). The trenches were lined with thick black plastic, then filled with clean gravel chips. The seedlings are established in the beds and enriched water flows constantly through the gravel, just like in the hydroponic pipes.
“Some clients have specific requests, such as only two or three watercress leaves in each salad packet. The watercress does not do well in the hydroponic pipes because it grows too vigorously. This is why we grow it in these beds.
“Similarly, there are types of lettuce that form heads, such as Iceberg, Butter, and Cos lettuce, which cause problems in hydroponic pipes as they are heavy and will fall over. These cultivars are then planted on a weekly basis in the fields. In this way, we spread our risk by managing both systems well,” says Charl.
GROWING WITH THE MARKET
Waterwiel’s packing sheds and cold storage facilities remind one of a hospital. The pale green floors are smooth and coated with epoxy glue, and the stainless-steel drains, conveyer belts and sorting trays have been polished until they shine.
“Every day, about 25 different types of plants enter this packing shed. By the time each product has been weighed and packaged, we have handled over 120 different product lines, each packaged according to their own specifications,” says Charlie.
This highlights the Malans’ dedication to satisfying their clients’ needs. Charl actually takes it a step further. “We conduct trials all year round and research new cultivars in order to stay ahead of the market. Normally the client dictates, but it is good to be proactive and offer them new products.
For this reason, we are conducting trials on a few trendy new lettuce cultivars and other vegetables, to see if we can develop new product ranges in conjunction with our clients. But for now, these trials are a state secret,” laughs Charl.
However, this attitude does not come from desperation, and the Malans are not shy to negotiate good prices. “We have been fortunate to grow with the market just at a time when pillow packaging made its appearance. So, along with our clients, we have grown organically in this market, and have learned valuable lessons.
“The requirements are sometimes astounding, such as the ongoing packing shed audits and farm audits that cost thousands of Rands and take up a lot of our time. We also have to continuously be in production and make sure we can provide sufficient quantities of our product,” says Charl. “It is really a huge challenge for our family but we have definitely risen to the challenge.”
They were honoured by Pick n Pay in 2010 as the most progressive supplier of the year. In the same year, Big Brand, a subsidiary of Shoprite Checkers, named them as the supplier with the best cooperative attitude in business.
These accolades, two of many over the years, illustrate the degree to which the Malans are willing to go out of their way to satisfy their clients’ expectations.
HOW TO START A HYDROPONIC FARM
What is the most important factor to take into consideration before you start experimenting with hydroponic systems?
Charlie Malan: It is important to choose a suitable site where you can use natural slopes to your advantage and thus save the cost of pumping water uphill, as well as the costs associated with excavations.
Then, anything in which water can flow and in which you can establish a plant is suitable for hydroponics, as long as you can regulate the temperature and keep the water away from sunlight. The temperature, water quality, nutrients and oxygen in the water are aspects that must be closely monitored. You must experiment with what ratios and practices will work best in your circumstances.
We struggled for a long time to get the optimal oxygen content in our water, but with a few trade secrets and some innovative ideas, we found the recipe that works for us.
What role does the permeability of the shade cloth play?
Charlie Malan: The permeability of the shade cloth depends primarily on the area, and there aren’t specific guidelines. Our greatest hurdle was our hot summers, so we decided to use a shade cloth that allows less sunlight through. This means though, that it blocks light in winter but up to now, that hasn’t been a major problem for us.
What is the length and diameter of the hydroponic pipes and how did you decide on this?
Charl Malan: There isn’t a specific standard. We planned ours according to the available space and the practical convenience of production aspects, such as planting, harvesting, spraying etc. We use pipes of 90mm wide and 12m long.
Is the water in your hydroponic system ever changed?
Charl Malan: It is good practice to change the water after a certain period of time. A fixed period is normally the simplest way. However, in summer, when the incidence of diseases is higher, it will be done more often than required in winter. We are familiar with our system now, and change it if we see it is necessary.
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