Pecans minimise ostrich risk

Foresight led Basie Strydom, from the farm Klein Doornrivier in the Klein Karoo, to diversify his farming enterprise from ostriches and Angora goats to pecan nut production. Glenneis Erasmus spoke to him about the years of working on a plan that has provi

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Foresight led Basie Strydom, from the farm Klein Doornrivier in the Klein Karoo, to diversify his farming enterprise from ostriches and Angora goats to pecan nut production. Glenneis Erasmus spoke to him about the years of working on a plan that has provided him with a growing business.

During the ostrich boom of the early 1990s Basie Strydom – from the farm Klein Doornrivier near the so-called ostrich capital of the world, Oudtshoorn – was concerned about the sustainability of the industry. “Based on the cyclical nature of the market it was obvious that prices weren’t going to remain high forever. Producing at lower prices wouldn’t have justified the risks associated with ostrich chick production, especially not the high mortality rate,” says Basie. He already had an established, viable Angora herd, but didn’t want to expand Angora production by replacing ostrich chicks with more Angora goats, as he’d still be vulnerable to market volatilities – he wanted to diversify from animal production.

In 1993 a friend, Piet Burger, suggested that he produce pecan nuts. Piet had a market analysis that projected a growing demand for pecan nuts as consumers became increasingly health conscious. The environment at Klein Doornrivier was also favourable for pecan nut production, as pecan nut trees need long hot summers for fruit growth and cold winters with frost for successful budding and flower formation. Soils should also be deep and well-drained. Basie planted his first 170 trees in July and August that year. “I’m really glad finished with all the drama associated with ostrich production, especially since was able to reduce my dependence on ostriches before the industry took a knock, after the export closures to the European market due to avian flu outbreaks,” he says.

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A bold move

Even so, the first pecan orchards almost bankrupted him. “Pecan nut trees require vast amounts of water – some say between 600â„“ and 800â„“ a day,” says Basie “As luck would have it, we suffered semi-drought conditions for 10 years after we planted the trees. We had to redirect water from lucerne used for animal production, to the orchards. Lots of lucerne was lost as a result, but losing the trees would have been a far more severe blow.” The area under pecan trees was expanded with an additional 274 trees in 1996 and the area under production today is 4,5ha. Basie uses mixed cultivars – Wichita, Barton, Choctaw, Shoshoni, Mohawk, Pawnee and Ukulinga – primarily because some of the cultivars are cross-pollinators and have to be planted as such. As the different cultivars ripen at different times, the mix also lengthens the harvesting season, between April and June, reducing labour pressure.

Similar cultivars are planted in the same rows to ease picking and sorting nuts. The trees are planted 10m apart in rows, 10m apart. Pecan trees have difficulty absorbing enough zinc and the deficiency can affect fruit quality and yield. The deficiency usually manifests as leafroll. Zinc is therefore applied in the orchards in a foliar feed every week for five weeks after budding and then as required if the leafroll appears. An organic slow-release fertiliser is applied to feed the trees in October and November, just before the first flowering. The fertiliser is a mix of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, as determined by an annual soil analysis. The mix is applied again in April and May to give the trees a boost after harvesting and to ensure they’re in good condition before winter. Lime is also applied to rectify brackish areas in the orchard.

Flood irrigation is used to water the trees according to the soil moisture content and climatic conditions. A hole is dug in the ground to see how much water is needed. “If you take the soil in your hand and press it to form a clod and it scatters into fine particles when you break it – the trees need watering,” explains Basie’s son Christoph. “If the soil is sticky and stays together when you break it, there’s still enough water in the soil.” In general, the trees are irrigated every second week for about two hours, depending on the soil moisture content. They need more water during January and February when the nuts fill. If there’s too little water at that time, it can affect fruit quality and yield.

Healthy trees

In the Klein Doornrivier area the trees don’t readily develop disease and there are few pests because of the dry conditions. Stemborer has been the most serious problem so far. The first sign of an infestation is a red-brown granular excretion around the base of the trunks. This discharge comes from the larvae as they burrow into the trunk. Systemic and contact pesticides are available to combat these pests, but Christoph prefers using a piece of soft wire to kill larvae in the tunnels. He advises that the trees should be inspected on a regular basis to detect the stemborer. The trees bear fruit from the third or fourth year, depending on the cultivar, but usually only yield commercially viable volumes from the sixth or seventh year. At 13 years the trees should yield around 2,5t/ha each. Some cultivars have alternate bearing, which means that if they produce 30kg of fruit this year they would have a lower yield the following year. The trees should be pruned to have a central leader with a fork that is larger than 60º but smaller than 90º. “The trees can tear in half if this is not done properly,” warns Christoph. The stem should be waist-high before it forks to enable the use of a shaker for mechanical harvesting.

Christoph hedges the trees annually from north to south to prevent them from growing into each other, which would reduce light penetration into the orchards. Between June and July he uses a chainsaw to cut the long branches down to about 3m from the stem. The nuts are picked when most of the lobes around then have opened. “Picking pecans is not as time-sensitive as other fruit. You can take your time,” says Basie. Pickers hand-pick or use long reeds to knock the nuts off the trees. Some pickers have to climb into the trees to reach some of the nuts. Christoph plans to buy a shaker to mechanise picking. The expanding orchard will eventually make picking by hand ineffective.

Processing the nuts

The nuts are left to dry for about a month before they are processed, to ensure a moisture content of not more than 4%. Processing too soon causes the nuts to go mouldy. The nuts are ready to be processed if they are broken open and the fruit snaps off cleanly without being elastic. The flesh should be a white ivory colour and not look glazed. The Strydoms have secured a stable market for their pecans. The bulk of their produce is sold in the shell to a processor in Upington. The rest are cracked and peeled on the farm and sold in the southern Cape. The pecans are mechanically cracked. “Four men slot the nuts into the cracker,” Basie explains. “The machine, which only cost R7 000 in 2000, can crack nuts of different sizes. This is a huge advantage because it means that we don’t have to class the nuts according to size before cracking.” The machine is also low maintenance as it is a simple patent with few parts that can actually break. The nuts are then hand-peeled, which causes less breakage of the nut. Processing them takes about four months.

Christoph’s wife Toppa points out that most of the buyers in the southern Cape entered the pecan business after hearing about the nuts produced on Klein Doornrivier from other buyers. The Strydoms charge about R40/kg less than the major retailers and production is economically viable for them at that price. Clients can then retail the nuts at a profit. There is nothing that annoys Basie more than retailers who leave pecan nuts on shelves for weeks. The nuts grow old and consumers think the producer produces a bad product, and are reluctant to buy it in the future. “Consumers must look at the colour of pecans. The nuts should be a wooden yellowish colour,” he says. He adds that pecan nuts can be stored in the freezer for quite a few years without affecting the quality. Once taken out of the freezer, the nut are ready for use within about an hour.

Exporting? No need

The Strydoms aren’t planning on exporting their nuts even though there is a large international demand. “To export, we would first have to find and secure a market,” says Christoph. “Secondly, we would have to produce sufficient volumes and provide a continuous supply. Thirdly, we would need to comply with a whole rigmarole of regulations and get all kinds of accreditation. I don’t think that overseas prices would justify the added costs and effort.” Contact Christoph Strydom on (044) 272 2405.