A young macadamia farmer in the Sabie River Valley in Mpumalanga, South Africa is proving that anyone can become a farmer, even if he hasn’t inherited land and doesn’t know a thing about farming. This ex-golfer’s secret to success is a willingness to learn, a passion for farming and good business acumen.
Just five years ago, Kobus Pieters’ (29) career was playing golf. Not that he played like Tiger Woods or Ernie Els, he admits. “If I was playing at that level, I would still be swinging clubs!”
He was the club pro (professional player) at the Umhlali Golf Club in Ballito on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. He wasn’t unhappy in Ballito and enjoyed his career, but the realisation that he would probably be working for a committee for the rest of his life didn’t sit well with him.
It was an easy decision to make when his father phoned him one day and asked him if he wanted to manage the filling station he owned in Hazyview, where Kobus grew up. He immediately realised that this was a golden opportunity to take charge of his destiny. In addition, he already had an established circle of good friends in the area – many of his school friends farmed there.
He was barely back in his hometown when the urge to farm took hold. “I had never regarded myself as a farmer. However, while mixing with my friends here and seeing the processes in their orchards and farms it all began to make sense to me. Even although I knew nothing about farming, I knew this was just the thing for me,” Kobus says.
A SEARCH FOR KNOWLEDGE (AND LAND)
The excellent macadamia prices on the world market made the decision about which crop to farm very easy. All that he needed was the knowledge to do so and some land to farm.
He gained the knowledge from his friends and other farmers in the area. Kobus says that he chatted as much as he could to every local farmer about their enterprises, asked his friends plenty of questions late into the night, and eventually asked Alan Sutton of the Valley Macadamias Group for advice.
Valley Macadamias is one of South Africa’s largest processors and exporters of macadamias to the Far East. The company buys macadamias from more than 170 farmers that each cultivate and supply the nuts under contract to them.
Kobus processed each little bit on information and pieced it together like a jigsaw until he reckoned that he had a satisfactory understanding of the essentials of macadamia farming.
Kobus had set his heart on a smallish macadamia farm in the area. Everyone tried to discourage him from buying the farm. It had been on the market for some time and it was, they said, extremely dilapidated; the orchards weren’t planted correctly and the trees hadn’t been pruned properly.
But this was all he could afford and he argued that at least there were established trees already. “That way I could produce macadamias from the start and earn some income, even if it wasn’t optimal.” It takes four to seven years for new orchards to reach production, depending on the cultivar. Kobus had to borrow money to buy the land and couldn’t afford to wait too long for a harvest.
Alan agreed to buy macadamias from Kobus, on condition that he delivered nuts of an acceptable quality. Kobus bit the bullet, borrowed money from his father and his uncle, Leon van der Westhuizen, and bought the 25-ha farm with its 17 ha of macadamia orchards. His wife Lyndie, a graphic designer, designed an emblem for their new farm and Big 5 Macadamias was born.
“Because I knew I had no experience, I relied heavily on consultants from the get-go. All the agricultural supply companies have specialists in their employ, and one has to make use of this experience.”
To create cashflow while he was nurturing his first harvest, he planted 8 ha of butternut and 1 ha of ginger. “I had a fantastic butternut harvest of 25 tons per hectare and a local supermarket bought a large portion of my harvest.”
‘Because I knew I had no experience, I relied heavily on consultants from the get-go’
The price of ginger had been good for the two years before he started farming and his first macadamia harvest wasn’t bad for such a run-down farm. This allowed him to buy another farm of 57 ha where he planted 40 ha of macadamias. This farm was dubbed Big 5 Macadamias 2 right from the start. The two farms are now commonly referred to as Mac 1 and Mac 2.
FOCUS ON BUSINESS AND QUALITY
“He is a remarkable young man,” says Alan, who has purchased two of Kobus’ harvests, and in December 2014 named him Valley Macadamias’ Young Farmer of the Year. “His focus on good business principles and quality management assured that he would produce excellent macadamias regardless of the fact that he had to restore the orchards from a wasteland.”
Kobus planted his new orchards at a density of 8m x 3m. The ideal density according to him is 8m x 6m, but while the trees are still saplings it is possible to double your young tree harvest with the extra row. Later, as the trees get bigger, it is worthwhile removing every second row. “By that time, the young trees have paid for themselves.”
He uses biochemical fertiliser from Atlas Organic Fertilisers because it doesn’t leach the sandy soil on his farm. He irrigates Mac 1 from the Da Gama canal and Mac 2 from the Sabie River canal.
The farm’s sandy soil makes weed control a problem. He uses glyphosate to keep the weeds under control, Basta on his young orchards and Roundup or Gramaxone in the orchards already under production.
Where the ginger is planted, weed control is complicated because it is grown between the young macadamia saplings. It is common practice to plant ginger between trees. Kobus believes that spraying with glyphosate retards the growth of the young macadamia saplings so he mixes Diuron in the soil before he plants. This herbicide suppresses photosynthesis in specific types of weeds.
The soil on the smaller farm is harder and there aren’t as many weeds – keeping the grass under control is his main challenge. In summer, he does spray a herbicide but in winter he simply keeps the grass short to form a blanket over the soil, which maintains the microclimate in the soil.
When it comes to insects he just shakes his head and says disconsolately: “Stink bugs!” The problem with these insects is that they are inclined to rapidly build up a resistance to the insecticides. The macadamia industry is hoping that the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals can come up with a workable solution to the stink bug problem as soon as possible.
Kobus says that in the meantime, he and his fellow macadamia farmers use a variety of existing substances that they alternate in the hope of combatting the bugs’ resistance.
There are similar problems with nut borers – he also alternates poisons on a regular basis to try and control them. As with the majority of macadamia farmers, Kobus uses aerial crop spraying from helicopters to deal with pests in his orchards, but he regularly alternates this with using tractor sprayers and mist blowers.
FROM TREE TO DRYING OVEN
Once his crop of nuts has survived the weeds and insects, it is harvest time. Kobus doesn’t like the effects that the growth hormone Ethapon has on his 11 hectares of 791 macadamia trees. Although the product has been successfully used on his hardy Beaumont orchards to cause the ripe nuts to drop simultaneously, he prefers to let his 791 trees ripen naturally.
“We start harvesting these orchards in February. We knock the nuts off and pick them up until about April, by which time we hope to be finished with our harvest. It’s an uphill struggle because these trees were planted incorrectly and had been badly pruned, but that harvest pays for my farm so for now I must live with it.
The 791 orchards were pruned in such a way that they only start to branch at about 2-3m above the ground. “You actually want your side branches to start from ground level and to limit your trees’ height to no more than 6m. The productivity is non-existent on such long, bare stems.” The Beaumont orchard has been pruned much better, but the spacing isn’t even. In some places the trees are too close to each other, and in others they are too far apart.
The 6 hectares of Beaumont trees are harvested between April and May. Kobus takes a large sample to the Valley Macadamias’ factory to test for maturity before he starts to harvest. The Beaumonts react well to Ethapon and within three weeks the entire harvest is off the trees and in the drying oven. Kobus dries his macadamias in electric drying ovens to 2.5% moisture content before he delivers them to Valley Macadamias.
SKILLED SEASONAL WORKERS
As soon as he has finished harvesting, he prunes his trees. Pruning is carried out in such a way as to get as much light on the main stem as possible to ensure good bud formation during the following growing season.
He has 20 seasonal workers that clean the orchards a week before the Ethapon is sprayed. They then work there for two to three months as it takes longer to harvest the 791 orchards. Most of the seasonal workers live nearby in Bosbokrand. On Mac 1 there are seven permanent workers and on Mac 2 four. The temporary workers also help in the ginger lands.
On Mac 1 Kobus has 22 hectares planted with Beaumonts and 12 hectares of A4s, a cultivar known for its big nuts of superior quality, but not as hardy as the Beaumonts. Even although the Beaumont nuts are smaller, this cultivar is renowned for its large harvests each year. Kobus feels it is important to maintain a diversity in a farm so he doesn’t plant only one cultivar.
He hopes to deliver his first harvest from his new farm in a year’s time and says that if more land comes on the market that he can afford then he will buy that too and plant more macadamias – this crop will still be profitable even if the prices are halved, he says.
ENQUIRIES: Kobus Pieters email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
GINGER IS DIFFICULT TO FARM SUSTAINABLY
South African ginger farmers earned up to R100/kg for their product in 2014 on the fresh produce markets and it would appear that they can make good money again this year . Theuns Anderson of the Agricultural Research Council says there are only a handful of farmers who are able to make a viable success of farming with ginger in the long term. Ginger is cultivated in subtropical conditions and normally in conjunction with macadamias and bananas. “Because it is such a small market, it is difficult to farm sustainably with ginger.”