Can Bee help fynbos industry bloom?

South Africa’s fynbos industry needs a statutory levy to finance research and promotion to make its globally competitive. But to qualify, it needs successful BEE projects like Berghoff Fynbos’s BEE offshoot, Mountain Dew, which farms proteas and pincushions for the benefit of 74 farmworker trustees. Wouter Kriel reports.
Issue date : 10-17 April 2009

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South Africa’s fynbos industry needs a statutory levy to finance research and promotion to make its globally competitive. But to qualify, it needs successful BEE projects like Berghoff Fynbos’s BEE offshoot, Mountain Dew, which farms proteas and pincushions for the benefit of 74 farmworker trustees. Wouter Kriel reports.

Since buying the farm Berghoff
in 1959 near Porterville in the Western Cape, the Shaw family of Berghoff Boerdery have always looked for ways to reward and uplift their work force. This culminated in the 2006 handover of a BEE fynbos project, Mountain Dew, which could make a major contribution to South Africa’s fynbos industry. Situated in the Olifants River Mountains in the Western Cape, Berghoff stopped farming fruit to focus exclusively on flower production in the late 1990s.
“We have 60ha of land suitable for fynbos cultivation, of which 40ha is currently being used,” says Marius Huysamer, co-owner of Berghoff and the Shaws’ son-in-law.
At 310ha, with altitudes ranging from 850m to 1 000m, Berghoff has a cool, Mediterranean climate with snowfall common in winter months. Abundant water is provided by 1 500mm rainfall annually and soils are generally sandy, derived from the sandstone of the area.
The Bergland Development Trust was formed by 74 Berghoff labourers and retired workers living on the farm. It bought 70ha of Berghoff, 18ha of which is suitable for intensive flower cultivation, with Land Redistribution and Development (LRAD) funds. A joint venture company, Berghoff Fynbos Pty (Ltd) was established, which belongs in equal share to the development trust and Berghoff Boerdery.
Berghoff Fynbos is now leasing the land from the development trust and is developing a fynbos farm. The company has six directors – four from the trust, and Marius and his father-in-law, Denis Shaw, representing Berghoff Boerdery. The trust beneficiaries remain employed by Berghoff to ensure their income and tenure security. Beneficiaries aren’t allowed to sell their shares in the first five years, after which the trust has first option to buy them out. A small dividend was paid out last year, but there’s a bank loan needing to be repaid, says Marius.
Edwin Gouws was appointed farm manager on Mountain Dew. As a beneficiary, but not a trustee, he has some independence, enhancing his working relationship with Berghoff and the development trust. His parents have lived and worked on Berghoff for 43 years and he grew up on the mountain and managed a nearby flower farm for eight years. “I love this area and to be able to make a living while working here is a bonus,” says Edwin.

Pincushions and proteas
One of the new board of directors’ first major decision was which flower species and cultivars to establish. Marius said Berghoff is known for its queen proteas, also known as Protea magnifica and previously as Protea narbigera (“barbi”), so they had the expertise and suitable conditions to establish this species on Mountain Dew.
But barbis take at least five years to get into production, while pincushions are fast growers generating an income in three or four years. However, pincushions don’t necessarily yield the same financial returns and are much more sensitive to frost, which is common on Mountain Dew due to the farm’s elevation. This increases the need for good management, as a mishap could lead to a total crop loss.

“We decided to establish 6ha of protea and pincushions and didn’t skimp on the cost,” says Marius. ”The first pincushion harvest is expected in 2010.”
The land was ripped following the slope and plants were established on ridges.

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  • Row spacing varies according to variety.
  • The pincushions are spaced to allow
  • 1m²/plant and ,4m between rows.

A double irrigation system is used, with overhead sprinklers to help combat frost, and a drip system which supplies water only where the plant grows, helping with weed control. “This double system is expensive, but the flowers will be ready to harvest at a time when demand is strong and supply is weak, so they’ll realise good prices,” Marius explains.

Do it right, do it yourself
Pine chips are used as a ground cover for all the new plantings, says Edwin. “Working for Water is felling invasive pine trees in our area, so we bought a wood chipper to clean up the veld and produce our own ground cover. The pine chips’ acidity suits fynbos well, represses weed growth and preserves soil moisture. The 415mm chipper was a big expense for a new business, but once our own veld is cleaned, we can lease it to other producers or sell wood chips to other farms.”

Edwin believes in doing the job right the first time without wasting money. “We maintain the blades on the chipper so we get up to 100 hours work per set, instead of the specified 10 hours,” he says. “Weeding is very labour-intensive, so I modified a backpack weed sprayer to roll on wheels and deposit the chemicals close to the ground without touching the flowers, saving time and cutting costs.”

Maintaining plant populations
Fynbos plants are notorious for dying for no apparent reason. Dead plants are replaced for the first two growing seasons and after that, their stronger neighbours are allowed to expand into the vacant spots. As a block gets older, more plants die until production starts to decline. “We factor a 5% plant loss per year into our planning,” explains. Edwin. This is also why Marius believes it’s crucial to establish new blocks annually to avoid being caught with older blocks only.

Berghoff Nursery, managed by Delina du Toit, produces 180 000 to 200 000 plants annually, assuring Mountain Dew’s supply. “Fynbos can’t be cultivated from tissue culture with current scientific knowledge, so all propagation is from cuttings,” she explains. “With selections originating in seedling blocks it can take up to 15 years to accumulate enough plant material and flowers to enter the export market with significant volumes.”

Faith in fynbos
Marius is optimistic about the future of Berghoff and Mountain Dew. “Fynbos is a niche product on the global flower market and there’s room for marketing expansion at reasonable profit margins,” he says. Edwin’s brother Henry Gouws serves on the board of directors and is a trustee of the development trust. “I have faith in our project, as we have a strong business plan and so far we’ve been able to keep to it,” he says. ”Berghoff’s success also reassures us Mountain Dew can become a successful commercial farm. Everybody knows it’s not a get-rich-quick-scheme, and that it will take hard work and commitment.” Contact Marius Huysamer on tel (022) 931 2937.     |fw