Trucking fresh produce long distances to markets is difficult, expensive and an ongoing challenge for producers. Father-and-son team David and Derrick Baird, who farm near Johannesburg and market much of their produce in KwaZulu-Natal, can testify to this. In just two years, however, the Bairds have revolutionised their logistics – as well as improved their production – through investing in the huge new Dube TradePort Agrizone.
The Bairds, who have been in business for 36 years, produce tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs hydroponically on their farm in Bapsfontein near Johannesburg. With major national retailers as their customers, they were required to truck produce down to regional branches in KZN. In 2010, the Bairds signed a 15-year lease on 12ha at the Dube TradePort Agrizone, alongside Durban’s King Shaka International Airport. The lease included office premises, a packhouse and 12 Dutch-built glasshouses of 1ha each. In total, 4ha each of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers (red and yellow) are grown.
An immediate benefit of the new premises was that the Bairds were able to satisfy the request of one of their retailers that their supply be regionalised. “We’re now supplying local product into a local market, although we do sell excess product in other regions, mainly Gauteng,” says Derrick, who moved to Durban in 2012 to oversee the operation. Cucumbers are the main income generator, with three crops grown a year. This is in addition to two tomato crops and one pepper crop.
“Eighty percent of the cucumbers not marketed regionally are sent to our pre-existing markets in Johannesburg, along with any excess of tomatoes and 80% of the peppers,” he explains. With the help of Dutch experts abroad, the Bairds’ production is improving continually. Although he will not be drawn into revealing volumes, Derrick says that production is higher at the Dube AgriZone than at their Bapsfontein farm.
“That is mainly due to our ability to control the environment. The glasshouses are state-of-the-art Dutch technology and have few weaknesses as far as infrastructure is concerned.” The glasshouses are equipped with many advanced features, such as rainwater harvesting, solar panels, water purification facilities, and computerised climate control. The latter, according to Derrick, is the most valuable.
“It gives us the ability to manipulate the climate internally to prevent plant stress. Despite this, the climate doesn’t make production easy. Even though the houses were built with Durban’s average climatic conditions in mind, the low diurnal difference in temperature and the high humidity are still our biggest challenge. We can go from blazing hot weather to overcast, rainy conditions in a day.”
Although learning how to manipulate the glasshouse environment has been demanding, Derrick has not experienced any crop losses during the process. “We follow the advice of our Dutch consultants,” he says. “It has taken us two years but we now know how to deal with certain climatic circumstances, for example, how to dry out a greenhouse when it is excessively humid, and how to use the fogging system to increase humidity in the greenhouse on hot, dry days.”
Another key feature is water recycling and rainwater harvesting, which helps limit the farm’s impact on the environment.
“We’re not drawing any irrigation water out of the ground – 100% of irrigation water is harvested rainwater,” explains Derrick. “Rainwater is collected from our roofs and stored in holding dams which hold 2 800m³ of water. All run-off is sterilised with UV light, before being blended with new water and re-used for irrigation.”
To minimise the chances of over- or under-irrigation, the system is scheduled to irrigate according to conditions inside the glasshouses, such as the number of daylight hours and the amount of transpiration. The houses are also fitted with solar panels to generate their own electricity as far as possible. “In ideal weather, solar energy can power the entire greenhouse, except for the packhouse. There are even times when we’ve been able to put power back into the grid. However, over the last four months, the light has been insufficient, so we’ve had to fall back on Eskom.”
Like any growing crop, Derrick’s hydroponic produce attracts pests and diseases. White fly and thrips are the main challenge, and a trial to control these with integrated pest management is under way. “We do some organic farming in Bapsfontein so are familiar with using natural controls and the least harsh chemicals where possible. “At the moment, we’re experimenting with [the biological control agent] Beauveria bassiana to control white fly. We first need to see how the imported predators adapt to this environment and climate.”
Dube TradePort has ambitious plans to develop the airport and surrounding area into an industrial and agricultural zone. Part of the aim is to use the glasshouses to train emerging farmers to be successful producers. “This is still a fledgling operation – we first need to make it profitable. We’ll be offering practical training to 60 technikon students at our Bapsfontein farm this year and are looking to train emerging farmers for Dube AgriZone. It just takes time to set up.”
Another aim of Dube TradePort is to use the airport as a springboard for exports. “It’s difficult to break into new markets during a global recession – everyone is price-sensitive and competitors undercut prices,” stresses Derrick. “But we’ve had negotiations with retailers in the Far and Middle East. Exporting from the TradePort is still a part of the plan.”
Fortunately, what has already been realised is 170 new jobs. “We’ve trained 130 people in the greenhouses, and 30 to 40 to work in the packhouse. The only staff I brought down from Johannesburg were two supervisors. Everyone else is local.”
A 60-year master plan
The Dube TradePort Corporation (DTP), which is wholly owned by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development and Tourism, is a 2 040ha greenfield site adjoining King Shaka International Airport (KSIA). DTP is a multi-modal development that will be built in phases over the next 60 years to become the Dube Aerotropolis (airport city). It is designed to bring about trade expansion, economic development, job creation, and increased foreign direct investment in Durban’s northern region.
Five zones have been established as part of phase 1 to drive the development of the air logistics business. These are: the KSIA; the cargo terminal; the TradeZone, which houses air cargo related businesses; ‘Dube City’, which comprises hotels, offices and retail outlets; and the AgriZone, a 16ha area of greenhouses for flower and vegetable production, a nursery and a research centre. The development became operational in 2010. Production at the AgriZone started in April 2011.