Sought-af­ter East Lon­don toma­toes reap rev­enue from afar

Lo­cal farms pro­duce about 20,000 tons an­nu­ally, val­ued at about R200m

Daily Dispatch - - Daily Life -

BUSI­NESS BE­YOND CON­TA­GION

In our se­ries of ar­ti­cles look­ing at Eastern Cape in­dus­try, Ray Hartle talks to tomato farm­ers Theo Scheep­ers and An­drew Em­slie

An unas­sum­ing yet ubiq­ui­tous fresh prod­uct — that’s the am­biva­lent sta­tus of the tomato in most house­hold and com­mer­cial kitchens.

And yet, how would our favourite South African bredie or stew, Cape curry, pizza, sum­mer salad, or even a polony sand­wich taste with­out the pi­quant flavour of toma­toes?

The East Lon­don tomato farms, which lie roughly along a 60km stretch be­tween Kwel­erha and Kidds Beach, con­sti­tute SA’s sec­ond big­gest tomato pro­duc­tion area, al­though there are only about 20 com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers con­tribut­ing to the yield.

It is dif­fi­cult to get of­fi­cial pro­duc­tion and sales fig­ures for toma­toes. But it’s clear that lo­cal pro­duc­ers hold their own de­spite three-quar­ters of the coun­try’s an­nual pro­duc­tion of al­most half a bil­lion tonnes of toma­toes com­ing from the Lowveld area of Lim­popo prov­ince, with ZZ2 toma­toes alone pro­duc­ing 40% of the coun­try’s to­tal crop.

In the East Lon­don area, about 20,000 tons are pro­duced, val­ued at about R200m, ac­cord­ing to An­drew Em­slie of Red Baron toma­toes. Up to 95% of lo­cally pro­duced toma­toes are trucked and sold to Pick ‘n Pay, Check­ers and Spar dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tres, and on fresh pro­duce mar­kets in Jo­han­nes­burg, Cape Town and Dur­ban. ThePrRe­main­ing 5% are sold in Buf­falo City, Nel­son Man­dela Bay and Mthatha.

The Jo­han­nes­burg mar­ket, the coun­try’s big­gest fresh pro­duce mar­ket, sold an av­er­age of

R3m of toma­toes every day last week, at about R8.05 per kilo­gram, sourced from lo­cal farms and the Lowveld.

“From an eco­nomic point of view for East Lon­don, that’s good rev­enue com­ing back in from other ar­eas,” Scheep­ers says.

“The qual­ity of our prod­uct in East Lon­don is of the best.

“The Lowveld tomato does not have the shelf life that the East Lon­don tomato has.

“Ours is a sought-af­ter prod­uct be­cause the buy­ers know it has a good shelf life and fairly good flavour.

“It’s ba­si­cally pre-sold [be­fore it ar­rives at the mar­ket].

“The agent that side will ask ‘how much is com­ing in?’ and he’ll call his buy­ers and sell it be­fore it ac­tu­ally ar­rives there.

“That’s the good name East Lon­don has got.”

He at­tributes the qual­ity of the BCM prod­uct to good fer­tiliser and chem­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion, the method of grow­ing, the re­gion’s mod­er­ate cli­mate —“it all plays its part”.

Toma­toes have been planted around East Lon­don for gen­er­a­tions.

Farm­ers grouped into a co­op­er­a­tive model, the East Lon­don Tomato Pack­ers, grew to 36 farm­ers who were sup­ply­ing be­tween 30-40 re­frig­er­ated trucks per week to na­tional mar­kets dur­ing the peak sum­mer pe­riod.

Un­til about 15 years ago, all the pro­duc­ers farmed in the field on the small parcels of avail­able land.

Though the re­gion’s “ad­verse weather — ex­cess wind and rain” are prob­lem­atic for the crop, the mod­er­ate all-round tem­per­a­tures and the ab­sence of frost are a boon.

Then, at the turn of the cen­tury, Claude Ran­dall — whose farm Scheep­ers later bought — put up eight steel and plas­tic hy­dro­ponic tun­nels, a method of farm­ing mim­ick­ing green­house con­di­tions.

The usual soil of the open field is re­placed with al­ter­na­tive growth medi­ums such as saw­dust or coco peat, and liq­uid so­lu­tions con­tain­ing es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents are cir­cu­lated through the tun­nel.

Scheep­ers, who was then head­ing the pack­ers co-op, says: “At the time, we could get about 40% first grade toma­toes from the open field crop.

“In the tun­nels, they could get up to 90% first grade toma­toes. Now that was a huge de­vel­op­ment.”

Bet­ter qual­ity toma­toes meant an elim­i­na­tion of the pre­vi­ous 25% wastage from the time pro­duce left the pack­ing shed to the time it was on the shelf, lead­ing to less truck­ing to mar­kets.

Ad­di­tion­ally, yields per hectare in­creased from 60 tonnes for field farm­ing to 350 tonnes a hectare of tun­nels.

“It was a huge change. Pro­duc­tion in­creased dra­mat­i­cally.”

At the end of that year, there were 90 tun­nels in EL and over the next decade, there was “an ex­plo­sion” in the op­er­a­tion of tun­nels be­cause of the ben­e­fits, though the costs in­creased all the time, largely due to cur­rency fluc­tu­a­tions.

To­day, vir­tu­ally all EL tomato pro­duc­tion is done in tun­nels and green­houses which en­sures bet­ter qual­ity and year-round pro­duc­tion.

The plants are pro­tected from coastal winds and rain, and crop pro­tec­tion chem­i­cals are about one fifth of those used for tra­di­tional out­door field pro­duc­tion.

The tun­nel sys­tem pro­vides for highly in­ten­sive farm­ing in a small area through­out the year, though win­ter yields are a third of sum­mer ones. Yields vary from 300 to 400 tons per ha de­pend­ing on the pro­ducer.

The area un­der toma­toes lo­cally is still too small to sup­ply be­yond the fresh pro­duce mar­ket, and there are no can­ning fa­cil­i­ties in the area.

Scheep­ers left the pack­ers’ coop in 2000. By then the or­gan­i­sa­tion had grown into “a huge en­tity” and in­di­vid­ual farm­ers felt they had lost their iden­tity.

The co-op broke up into about six smaller pack­ing houses, but some farm­ers still co­op­er­ate.

“In my op­er­a­tion, I pack for three ad­di­tional farm­ers.

“The Kidds Beach farm­ers formed their own en­tity there.”

Ac­cord­ing to Em­slie, toma­toes des­tined for the re­tail­ers are packed in the re­tailer branded pack­ag­ing and trans­ported to the rel­e­vant su­per­mar­ket dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre - all paid for by the farmer. He said farm­ers re­ceive about 55% of the re­tail price on av­er­age, al­though Scheep­ers put the re­turn to farm­ers at about a third of the re­tail price.

“The fresh pro­duce mar­kets are con­trolled by the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and are gen­er­ally very poorly main­tained de­spite the mu­nic­i­pal­ity earn­ing 5% com­mis­sion on all sales of all fruit and veg­etable prod­ucts,” said Em­slie.

On the high stan­dards ap­plied by re­tail­ers, Scheep­ers said it is es­sen­tial for the con­tin­ued well­be­ing of the busi­ness.

“If they be­come too le­nient, the pub­lic will suf­fer be­cause we will send in scrap toma­toes, so they have to be tough to safe­guard the con­sumer.

“SA re­tail­ers are tough but we have a good re­la­tion­ship. I’ve been in the busi­ness for 30 years now. For me to move two mil­lion kilo­grams is not an easy task. My re­tailer is my mar­ket­ing arm.”

Scheep­ers said there are strin­gent food safety pro­to­cols and au­dits of farm­ing and pack­ag­ing op­er­a­tions, fol­low­ing global best prac­tice.

“Our prod­uct is safe. And ev­ery­body else in our in­dus­try who is au­dited — their prod­uct is safe.

“SA con­sumers of toma­toes are get­ting a good, safe prod­uct.”

While SA farm­ers meet the coun­try re­quire­ment for fresh toma­toes and the coun­try ex­ports a small sur­plus, we fall short on meet­ing de­mand for pro­cessed tomato prod­ucts — canned or pro­cessed purée, sauce and paste.

Only about 10% of the na­tional crop is pro­cessed, mostly into tomato sauce.

In 2016, about 35,000 tonnes of tomato paste were im­ported, sug­gest­ing there might be an op­por­tu­nity for more in­vest­ment in lo­cal pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties, but that will re­quire a sig­nif­i­cant cap­i­tal in­jec­tion and se­cure agree­ments with farm­ers.

Scheep­ers rem­i­nisces about a short-lived at­tempt at ex­port­ing EL toma­toes to Bri­tain.

The toma­toes would be picked lo­cally early in the morn­ing, sub­jected to au­dit­ing and pack­aged for an af­ter­noon flight to Jo­han­nes­burg, to meet an overnight flight to Heathrow air­port.

Early the next morn­ing, they would be avail­able for dis­tri­bu­tion to Sains­bury stores in Lon­don.

“We did that for months but we couldn’t get the right vol­umes.”

He is con­cerned about the tight mar­gins in the lo­cal sec­tor, which are get­ting “tougher and tougher”, though he be­lieves there will be a re­cov­ery one day.

Drought re­mains a con­cern for tomato farm­ers, as Scheep­ers said: “If we plant, we look at how much wa­ter we have and as­sess whether there is enough to take the crop through. If you can­not take the crop through, it’s a dis­as­ter. The money that you’ve spent, you’re get­ting noth­ing for it.”

But the hy­dro­ponic farm­ing method is highly wa­ter ef­fi­cient. Em­slie said, adding the process re­quires metic­u­lous at­ten­tion

The Lowveld tomato does not have the shelf life that the EL tomato has

to de­tail seven days a week, with plants ir­ri­gated up to 12 times a day, de­pend­ing on their stage of growth.

Scheep­ers em­ploys 100 peo­ple on his two farms and the pack­ing house; the 20 lo­cal tomato farm­ers em­ploy about 1,000 peo­ple in to­tal, said Em­slie.

It’s still labour in­ten­sive, though mech­a­ni­sa­tion is in­creas­ing rapidly in Europe, be­cause it al­lows high speed op­er­a­tions, which make it pos­si­ble to meet re­tailer de­mands to get the prod­ucts into stores, as fresh as pos­si­ble and as quickly as pos­si­ble.

Both farm­ers lament gov­ern­ment spend­ing huge sums of money to pur­chase to pur­chase about seven tomato farms as part of the agri­cul­tural land re­form process, and fi­nanc­ing of tomato projects, which have not pro­duced any re­sults.

“Sadly not one of these projects or farms is op­er­a­tional de­spite mil­lions on grants be­ing paid out over the years. Many jobs have been lost as a re­sult. Most of the farms have been van­dalised and as­set stripped,” said Em­slie.

Scheep­ers said the big­gest re­quire­ment the in­dus­try has of gov­ern­ment is for re­search.

“If you look at Canada and Aus­tralia, there is fan­tas­tic gov­ern­ment ser­vice to farm­ers. That’s where I get my in­for­ma­tion.

“But our con­di­tions are not their con­di­tions, that’s why we need our own re­search.”

The in­dus­try faces two ma­jor in­ter­na­tional prob­lems — tuta ab­so­luta, a 2mm moth, and white­flies, which both can be dev­as­tat­ing for farm­ers.

“That moth lays its eggs in the leaves, stem or fruit, and we try to con­trol the lavae with chem­i­cals or at­tract the moths into ul­tra­vi­o­let light traps.”

One of the af­fects of the coron­avirus pan­demic and lock­down is the trans­port costs for work­ers on the farm, as they are forced PR to take in­di­vid­ual taxis to work, as con­vey­ing them in a sin­gle ve­hi­cle is not al­lowed in terms of so­cial dis­tanc­ing re­quire­ments.

“We def­i­nitely need sub­sidi­s­a­tion there,” he said.

Pic­tures: SUP­PLIED

SAFE EN­VI­RON­MENT: Most toma­toes are now suc­cess­fully grown in tun­nels, like on Theo Scheep­ers’ farm.

ONE STEP AHEAD: Bet­ter qual­ity toma­toes means an elim­i­na­tion of the pre­vi­ous wastage from the time the pro­duce leaves the pack­ing shed to the time it is on the shelf, lead­ing to less truck­ing to mar­kets.

RAY HARTLE

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