Value-adding boosts hydroponics venture

Basil Williams, the managing director of Herbal View Hydroponics, cultivates 3t of various herbs per month on just 1ha of land. Recently, he also tapped into the enormous potential of value-adding. Jeandré van der Walt visited him on his farm in Simondium, near Paarl.

Basil Williams in one of his six tunnels. Each tunnel contains approximately 5 000 plants.
Photo: Jeandré van der Walt

Just under 20 years ago, Basil Williams began dabbling in herbs under shade netting in his mother’s backyard at Kylemore in the Western Cape.

“At that stage, I was working on fynbos at the Agricultural Research Council in Stellenbosch. That’s where my love for plants started,” he recalls.

In 2007, he received a grant from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture to expand production near Pniel. The following year, however, he suffered a setback when his structures were damaged by wind.

Undeterred, he pressed on, and his persistence paid off: in 2012, he received help from the state’s Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme, and was able to expand Herbal View Hydroponics and slowly start improving his business.

Today, his farming enterprise is far removed from the shade netting in his mother’s backyard. He operates the business on 1ha of rented farmland at Donkerhoek Farm in Simondium, cultivating herbs in six plastic tunnels, under shade netting, and in open fields.

Business operations
Each tunnel houses a dense population of about 5 000 herb plants. The average interior temperature is between 22°C and 25°C in summer, and about 22°C in winter.

Williams grows coriander, rocket, mint, chives, thyme, origanum and rosemary, as well as garlic, baby spinach and micro herbs.

He uses organically certified pesticides from Agro Organics, and can therefore spray and harvest on the same day, if required. He also uses a natural insect spray with ingredients such as garlic, chilli and dishwashing liquid, which kills and repels insects.

According to Williams, he does not have significant problems with pests and disease, but whitefly is sometimes a challenge due to the high humidity in the tunnels. He uses a spray formulated from a citrus extract to control this pest and deter it from attacking his plants.

Propagation and replanting seedlings
Herbal View Hydroponics propagates its own seedlings. Williams’s sister and business partner, Caroline Williams, is responsible for this task.

Williams buys his seed from reputable seed companies to be “assured that my seedlings are of good quality”. He looks out for cultivars with a good shelf life, taste and yield, and regularly conducts his own trials with different varieties.

His advice to new herb growers is to research the market thoroughly to determine which herbs are in demand. “Don’t just rush into buying and planting any herbs. Select those that are good sellers,” he says.

The seedlings are grown in the tunnels for about four weeks. Williams found vermiculite to be the most suitable growth medium for seedling production and micro herb propagation as it retains water well, thus helping reduce usage.

Each seedling receives 150ml of water every hour in summer and only twice a day in winter. The required nutrients are mixed in tanks and supplied to the seedlings through an automatic irrigation system.

Before they are replanted, the seedlings are hardened off for at least one week under shade netting. After this, they are replanted in 10ℓ planting bags and polypropylene troughs in a growing medium mix, or coco peat.

Water from tanks, mixed with liquid nutrients specific to the needs of the various plants, circulates through the hydroponic system, providing each plant with 1ℓ of water per day.

Williams maintains his electrical conductivity levels, a measure of the salts in the system, between 1,5 and 2.

Coco peat can produce crops for up to five years in a hydroponic system. “After five years, I mix it with compost, and use it in plant bags for herbs and other plants I sell to the public,” he says.

A diverse market
According to Williams, the market for fresh herbs is diverse and growing. Herbal View Hydroponics supplies various wholesalers, such as Pesto Princess, Ina Paarman and Dew Crisp Western Cape. It also provides fresh herbs daily to some restaurants and delis in the Boland area.

Five days a week, Williams takes micro herbs to the GrandWest Casino and the Cape Town CBD in his refrigerated delivery truck.

In 2017, the business added a range of spices and pestos to its product line, and the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism assisted Williams with start-up funding to expand the operation.

“With the funding, I could buy various packaging materials, as well as processing machines. It helped me get my foot in the door within a year,” he says.

The company’s product line comprises 10 items, including herb and braai mixes, that are available year-round.

Williams is also developing pestos with a food technologist from the Western Cape agriculture department at Elsenburg.

His creative spice blends and salt infusions contain no preservatives, and are made from his own dried herbs.

Traceability is critical, he says. “From seed to sale, I can tell exactly where our products have moved along the chain. Also, being in control of what’s going into my products, I know I can deliver a good-quality product with robust flavour.

This gives me a competitive advantage over those who buy their raw materials from different suppliers.”

He says a farmer can grow and sell any product, but won’t necessarily make a profit.

“We’ve found that to grow our markets and profits, we have to add value to our products through further processing,” he says.

This did not happen overnight; the business made the transition from wholesale to processed products over time.

Today, however, value-added products account for 70% of Herbal View Hydroponics’ output, while wholesale and raw material products make up the balance.

Growing the business
Williams hopes to expand his farming operations from 1ha to 5ha within the next year. He is already in the process of applying for funding from the Western Cape agriculture department to erect 10 new tunnels on his land, but adds that he will be able to expand his farming operations on the 5ha even more, as this will provide space for up to 30 more tunnels.

“Job creation in the community is vital to me. With these extensions, I’ll be able to create another five jobs,” he says.

Phone Basil Williams on 076 729 6463, or email him at [email protected].