Cultivars double profitability

The Western Cape Farmer of the Year 2008, Wouter Beukes, has managed to increase turnover by 70% over the past three years, doubling profitability of his grapes. He carefully chooses seedless cultivars to export to leading UK supermarkets like Marks & Spencer, all the while honing his planning, practicality and teamwork, writes Wouter Kriel.
Issue date: 16 January 2009

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The Western Cape Farmer of the Year 2008, Wouter Beukes, has managed to increase turnover by 70% over the past three years,  doubling profitability of his grapes.  He carefully chooses seedless cultivars  to export to leading UK supermarkets like  Marks & Spencer, all the while honing his planning, practicality and teamwork, writes Wouter Kriel.

Wouter Beukes, the 33-year-old owner of De Modderdrift and Sanddrif in De Doorns, is the Western Cape Young Farmer of the Year 2008. Wouter is a fourth-generation Beukes farmer and according to his wife, Karin, has his father’s same eye for detail. “People say I have a special talent for walking into a vineyard block exactly where something is wrong,” Wouter laughs. Although he’s comfortable with modern technology, Wouter still believes in digging holes to check soil moisture twice a week. This pragmatic approach to farming, coupled with attention to detail, played a central role in the Beukes’ rejuvenation of De Modderdrift after they bought it in 1999.

It’s all about teamwork
Teamwork has also featured throughout, with Wouter and Karin both shouldering their respective responsibilities in managing the 100ha export table grapes.
“I’m in charge outside, overseeing four production managers and during peak times, up to 500 labourers,” Wouter says. “Karin is responsible for the financial, administrative and human resources issues. In the beginning, we had our domestic tiffs, but now we respect one another’s areas of responsibility and don’t overstep those boundaries.”  Adds Karin, “Working together as husband and wife makes sense, as we strive for the same goals. The same goes for staff management. We are a very tightly knit management team, but everyone knows what their responsibilities are and the level of performance expected. This allows us to be both social and professional with our staff.” This approach to farming has yielded exceptional results. Production has doubled and quality has been dramatically improved.

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Adding new cultivars
Wouter invested in new black and red seedless cultivars, increasing turnover by 70% over the past three years and doubling profitability. “We established Crimson, Superior Seedless, Midnight Beauty, Sable Seedless and Scarlotta Seedless in the past five years to have the right cultivars for our European and UK supermarket clients,” he explains.  “Today, our production consists of 23% black seedless, consisting of Midnight Beauty and Sable Seedless. Our red seedless, Crimson, represents 27% of our crop and is marketed exclusively to Marks & Spencer in the UK. The UK only buys seedless grapes, so that will remain our focus. “We’re currently experimenting with different white seedless cultivars and hope to find a late ripening variety, as there is a gap in the market.” Cultivars being evaluated include Sugra 13, 16, 19 and 31.

Focus on environment
“We try to use fewer chemical products and I believe in compost,” explains Wouter. “In clay soil, we initially apply 30m³/ha to 35m³/ha of compost and all vineyards get a yearly application of 10m³/ha to 15m³/ha. “We’re working with our main exporter to measure our carbon footprint, but in our industry, the overwhelming carbon emitter is the transport component. We will, however, attend to this in future.” Wouter established triticale in the vineyard rows, as it loosens up the heavy soil and serves as mulch on the banks. De Modderdrift uses microjet irrigation. “Our system works well, so I don’t see the need to change it,” he says.

Grape quality was improved by a complete overhaul of the packing facility in 2003.
Upgrades included a new precooling facility for the packing shed, which now processes 320 000 cartons per season, but could expand to 450 000 cartons.
Farm roads were revamped and are maintained on a regular basis. “Each bump in the road from the vineyard to the packing shed is a potential bruise on the fruit, which will only show up once the grapes are in the supermarket,” Wouter says.

Investing in staff
Wouter invests in his employees, as he believes this is the only way to achieve quality results. “Farming today is too complex to try and do everything yourself. You need to delegate responsibility and trust your staff to make important decisions. The art of management is to make people want to work for you,” he says. “I don’t believe in large production units and limit my four managers to 25ha each, which is still a sizable table grape operation.

“At the same time, I don’t like to duplicate unnecessarily, so my managers have to coordinate activities so we don’t end up with a block of grapes only sprayed halfway. This also means that if we plan effectively, we can operate one tractor instead of four. All this requires good communication with the management team, so we talk to each other daily and have meetings once a week.”
Contact Wouter or Karin Beukes on (023) 354 8340 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw

Giving back to the community

Wouter continually invests in staff training and their social environment. He financed a church and initiated a crèche and a primary school, now also being used by the surrounding farms. “It’s remarkable to see how someone who has goals and self-esteem differs from someone who’s only passing through life,” Karin says. “We use all the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) courses we can, and extra courses where possible.” De Modderdrift has recently qualified for the Sedex ethical trading initiative accreditation. “Sedex is 80% about how you treat your workforce,” Wouter says. De Modderdrift also achieved 99% on the BEE scorecard for an enterprise with an annual turnover below R35 million, through employment equity, skills development, preferential procurement, socioeconomic development and donations.

Wouter is positive about land reform, and plans to buy additional land that will be his contribution.  “I sincerely want to make a gesture towards the people who have walked the path with me. But I don’t want to make the existing cake smaller,” he says.