Four niche crops to boost your cash flow

Diversifying a farming operation by adding a high-income niche crop is an effective way to utilise a small piece of spare land. Lindi Botha looks at four products that are gaining in popularity.

Blueberry crop
Blueberries are a lucrative crop but require high input costs.
Photo: Supplied

Blueberries

Blueberries make a useful addition to a farming enterprise. Many tomato and cucumber farmers, for example, have found that transforming a tunnel from vegetable production to this blue superfood requires minimal input. With the right fertiliser application and management, blueberries can make a lucrative crop.

Production
To make the investment worthwhile, Elzette Schutte, coordinator at the South African Berry Producers’ Association, recommends that a farmer set aside a minimum of 5ha to 10ha.
With a wide variety of cultivars available, production is possible in both warmer and cooler areas, and blueberries can be planted in most provinces in South Africa.

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However, while older varieties suited to cool climates are freely available, newer cultivars and those that can be grown in warmer areas are subject to royalty fees. Schutte notes that while plant material can be difficult to obtain, more companies are investing in South Africa and therefore availability is improving.

At present, the season extends from August to February, but with new cultivars coming onto the market, production could soon take place all year round. Plants bear fruit within the first year, but Schutte advises that it is best to try to achieve vegetative growth in the first year and harvest only in year two.

Inputs vs Income
A 1ha blueberry operation will set a farmer back about R1,2 million, with operational costs coming to an additional R350 000 per annum.

At a density of 5 000 plants/ha, with each producing about 3kg of berries, income could reach R1,2 million per season at a price of R80/ kg of blueberries. Depending on the grower’s set-up, a return on investment can be achieved after three to five years.

Blueberries have been earmarked as an industry that can aid in rural employment, as the venture requires about three permanent workers/ha.

The bulk of local production is destined for UK and European markets. Work is underway to open markets in China and South Korea.

Phone Elzette Schutte on 021 870 2900.

Golden Kiwis

The sunny cousin of the green kiwi is the golden variety, and the market for it is strong and growing. With a sweeter, less acidic taste, it has been well received on the Far East, UK and European markets.

golden kiwifruit
Golden kiwis should be grown under netting.

Production
Golden kiwis planted on 2ha to 4ha make a good addition to an existing farming operation where implements and equipment are already available.

READ Well-managed soil: the key to high-yielding gold kiwifruit

However, if starting from scratch, a farmer should plant at least 5ha to the crop, advises Waldo Maree, director of cultivar development at Stargrow.

Golden kiwis require less winter chilling than standard green flesh varieties, which extends the potential production region across a wider area of South Africa. The ambient temperature should not exceed 35°C in summer, however.

High humidity is preferable during the fruiting season, but growers in warm, low-humidity conditions have seen good results with mister systems installed in the orchard, explains Maree.

Using good rootstock is a necessity when planting a new orchard, and as availability has increased, so too has the use of grafted plants. Most golden varieties require plant breeder’s rights, however.

The first harvest can be obtained within just four years. The season varies from February to March for early varieties, and into April for mid- to late-season cultivars. The crop is harvested once annually, and vines can stay productive for at least 40 years if well looked after.

Inputs vs income
Maree suggests planting new orchards under netting.

“Keep in mind that because of the specific training systems required, the netting structures are higher than the normal citrus structures, going up to 5,5m, which adds to the cost,” he says.

“All things considered, the establishment cost could be between R350 000/ ha and R450 000/ ha.

“The production cost is comparable to that of other deciduous fruit such as pears or plums, and farmers can expect to break even in year six or seven.”

Maree notes that golden kiwis are labour-intensive, but less so than berries.

Challenges
As the industry is relatively new and production information from other countries cannot simply be duplicated in South Africa’s climate, obtaining technical knowledge is difficult for new growers. Maree notes, however, that as the industry grows and plant breeders hone their skills, more information is being shared.

Phone Waldo Maree on 021 880 1882.

Microgreens

Just a year ago, Jaco Mynhardt, owner of Tasty Microgreens, was struggling to sell his product, as few consumers were familiar with microgreens. But news has spread about their health properties and flavour, and Mynhardt is now struggling to juggle his full-time job and producing enough microgreens to meet demand.

Microgreens can be produced indoors on a small scale.

Production
Microgreens require minimal space as they can be farmed vertically. Production can also take place indoors, and outbuildings can easily be converted into mini farms. Mynhardt uses a five-shelf configuration of 1,8m wide by 2,1m high, with each shelf 600mm deep.

“To start, you need no more than an area 4m by 4m, with a harvesting, packing and storing facility as well,” Mynhardt says.

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With indoor farming, temperatures are easier to control, and should range between 18°C and 25°C. In Gauteng, where he farms, Mynhardt requires no additional heating in winter, but additional water is required when temperatures rise.

Seed is easily obtained from seed companies. Production takes place throughout the year and a harvest is possible every 12 days for most varieties. For beet and Swiss chard, leaves are harvested every 21 to 25 days.

Mynhardt notes that microgreen production is not particularly specialised, but requires trial and error to find what works best.

Inputs vs Income
Mynhardt’s input costs to start microgreen production was in the vicinity of R10 000. A return on investment can be expected in six to 12 months, depending on the size of operation and how aggressively the produce is marketed.

The operation is not overly labour-intensive, but requires daily irrigation as well as harvesting and packing.

Mynhardt says that while the market is growing, there is still much more consumer education that needs to be carried out about the produce’s health benefits. At this stage, microgreens are bought mainly by restaurants.

Challenges
Microgreens have to be sold soon after harvesting as their fragile leaves wilt easily.

“If the market is slow, you can lose your entire batch,” Mynhardt cautions.

Email Jaco Mynhardt at [email protected].

Exotic mushrooms

With the popularity of Asian cuisine, creating a market for exotic mushrooms is becoming a lucrative business. Mushroom farming’s profitability, however, depends on location and finding yourself among the right neighbours.

Mushroom production is dependent on the type of substrate that is available.

Production
Producing exotic mushrooms require a space of 400m² to 500m² in a controlled indoor environment to make the investment worthwhile. Each fungus species has its own climatic requirement.

Oyster mushrooms, for example, need 80% to 90% relative humidity with a temperature of between 18°C and 21°C, and 12 hours of daylight. Fresh air should be fanned into the growing area to expel CO2 as it builds up.

Fungi spawn to start mushroom farming is readily available on order. Farmers are advised to use fresh spawn to ensure viability and vigour of the fungus.

Oyster mushrooms have a turnaround of four to five weeks to first harvest, while shiitake mushrooms may take up to 100 days before the first fruit body can be harvested. The former provides four flushes, or harvests, and shiitake three.

Because mushrooms are grown under artificial conditions, the grower can adjust the environment to suit production of the desired species of mushroom.

Inputs vs income
The profitability of mushroom farming lies in the producer’s ability to find a sustainable source of substrate. Bert Reynders, owner of Funguys, says that a grower should therefore first find a suitable substrate in his or her area that is readily obtained for free or at a small fee.

“If you live in an area where you have access to wheat straw, or have it as a waste product from your other farming activities, it will be your first choice of substrate for producing oyster mushrooms. If you have access to shavings from oak or other broad-leaved hardwoods, you can produce mushrooms such as shiitake.”

Reynders advises the first-time grower to avoid setting up an over-complicated system.

“There are only a couple of major components to deal with and these can be overcome with a little bit of thought and ingenuity. Light, fresh air ventilation, temperature sand humidity are the most important considerations. Consider adding a skylight for lighting, instead of using electrically powered light. You could also design your lighting to work off a 12V solar-powered system.”

Labour requirements are species-dependent. While oyster mushrooms are the least labour-intensive, shiitake requires specialised attention.

Email Bert Reynders at [email protected]