Farmers embrace technology amid water crisis

2017-12-21 06:00
Leon de Koning surveys his crop of lettuce on the farm Highlands in the Gamtoos River Valley. Farmers in the valley are turning to technology to beat the drought and cuts in their water allocations.                                             Photo:JOHN WAIT

Leon de Koning surveys his crop of lettuce on the farm Highlands in the Gamtoos River Valley. Farmers in the valley are turning to technology to beat the drought and cuts in their water allocations. Photo:JOHN WAIT

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AS the Eastern Cape continues to battle the ravages of an ongoing drought, farmers in the province are increasingly turning to technology to keep the effects of the water crisis at bay.

This is particularly evident in the Gamtoos Valley where a number of farmers have notched up considerable success in the face of adversity – including a 60% reduction in their annual water allocation for 2017/18.

One of these is Leon de Koning of the farm Highlands, who grows and packages an extensive range of produce, including carrots, beetroot and a variety of lettuces for chain stores such as Pick n Pay and Checkers.

Not only that, but Highlands also specialises in selling peeled and prepared vegetables to local restaurants and, with the Western Cape also in the grip of a crippling drought, many of the goods grown at Highlands are finding their way onto supermarket shelves in that province too.

But achieving this success has not been easy and has demanded moving with the times. Successfully sinking a borehole was not enough for De Koning, who opted to go high tech.

“We use computers to measure exactly how much water each plant needs. This works and has helped us a lot,” he said.

When De Koning inherited the farm from his grandfather in 1989, it employed just 12 labourers. Today a team of 120 is needed to handle the business, which has also absorbed two neighbouring farms.

“I told my grandfather that I was planning to expand and he was really angry and said I wouldn’t make a success of it. I am happy to say that he lived long enough for me to prove him wrong,” he said.

“There’s no denying that it’s hard work,” added De Koning, whose typical day begins at dawn and ends at 9pm. “But Highlands has survived droughts in the past – as well as severe flooding. By refusing to give up, and introducing the latest technology, we are certain that we will also get through the current drought.”

Another Gamtoos Valley enterprise that is reaping the rewards of technology belongs to the husband-and-wife team of Johan and Madele Ferreira, who specialise in growing raspberries and strawberries.

At their farm Mooihoek, exact drip irrigation is used to ensure that not a drop more water than needed is used to get these fruits onto Eastern Cape tables.

“It’s really not difficult to grow strawberries and raspberries, although the latter do not enjoy the heat so we use nets to protect them,” said Johan Ferreira.

A product that is, however, suffering is spinach, with less than the usual crop being grown at Mooihoek.

“At this point we are surviving and I don’t see prices rising in the shops any time soon,” Ferreira said. “But with the drought also affecting the Western Cape, if we don’t get good rain in two to three months that could all change.

Also relying heavily on technology for the survival, not only of his citrus crop but also of the herbs which can be found at Woolworths, Spar and Pick n Pay, is Charlie Malan of Waterwiel Farm.

Waterwiel started out on a very small scale 20 years ago and, like Highlands, has grown rapidly using the latest advances in farming.

“We have probes in the ground which alert us to which trees are dying, allowing us to take prompt action to ensure a guaranteed crop,” Malan said.

“We are also using the services of an adviser from a citrus research station in Nelspruit, garnering information about how much fertiliser and water is needed to ensure the success of the crop.”

Like Highlands, all products at Waterwiel, including lettuce and 18 different types of herbs, are packaged on site for distribution throughout the Eastern Cape and the rest of the country.

Ensuring that the available water is divided evenly among valley farmers like De Koning, Ferreira and Malan, and helping to manage the drought, falls to the Gamtoos Irrigation Board (GIB).

We manage the water quota of all water users and, in the process, make sure that everyone is treated fairly and receives the quota that they are entitled to,” said GIB financial and human resources manager Rienette Colesky.

“We also supply the Hankey and Patensie municipalities, as well as the Port Elizabeth metro, attempting to keep the municipalities within their quota and protect the farmers’ quotas.

“On a monthly basis, the board measures the user’s water meters and letters are sent to farmers indicating their usage and also what their average usage should be. This can be used as a management tool by farmers,” said Colesky.

“The canal system is also maintained at a high level to ensure that water losses are kept to the minimum.”

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