The land of milk & honeybush

The people of Haarlem in the Langkloof were harvesting wild honeybush long before commercial growing and the current market boom. But in a town of 3 000-odd townspeople, 80% were left without an income in the off-season. Today, Charlton Fortuin of the Haarlem Honeybush Association has already helped lead their organically certified teas straight to Pick ‘n Pay’s shelves. Glenneis Erasmus reports.
Issue : 20 June 2008

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Honeybush has always been a natural source of additional income in the small town of Haarlem in the Langkloof. Charlton Fortuin, chairperson of the Honeybush Association, recalls how, in his father’s time “the men used to stay in the veld for weeks `til they harvested enough honeybush to sell.

They had to sleep outside regardless of the weather and often had to work through the night to cut the honeybush so it would be easier to carry back to town on donkeys.” In spite of their hard work, income from honeybush was marginal – sometimes less than 50c/kg – as demand was limited, but the market has picked up tremendously over the past few years due to the increased awareness of honeybush’s high-levels of health-enhancing antioxidants.

However, the locals struggled to cash in on new market opportunities due to depleting stock levels – harvesters have to go deeper and deeper into the veld to collect small quantities of honeybush. In 2000, Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (Asnapp), using funds from various governmental institutions and the private sector, helped community members establish honeybush plantations and secured a market for their produce.

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Jacky Goliath from Asnapp says this not only meant additional income for community members, but also helped conserve honeybush levels in the veld. A snapp has helped the Haarlem Honeybush Association to structure the project to ensure sustainability. “We have strict rules and regulations even though each person is farming individually,” Charlton explains.

To become part of the project, beneficiaries have to apply to become members. Membership is only granted if applicants show a keen interest in and commitment to becoming successful producers. They also have to attend a certain amount of honeybush production training sessions. This ensures that all members buy into the same vision and helps to reduce conflict. In addition, this land can only be  used for honeybush production and beneficiaries are not allowed to live on it.

Once membership is granted and individuals receive land, they have to abide by the association’s production rules. As the project is organically certified, all producers have to commit to only using organic production methods. Charlton adds that this resolve often gets tested when plantations are subjected to a pest. However, the message has been clearly imparted that the whole group would lose organic certification if one person doesn’t abide by the rules. There are also strict record-holding policies.

This could be a problem at other projects, but almost all the members of the association are literate enough to abide by this rule. Only one member is illiterate and requires help with record-keeping, but Charlton points out that he is one of the strongest farmers in the group – “just because he can’t write, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with his intellect,” he says.

An internal inspector has also been appointed to ensure everybody abides by the codes and rules, and he controls and audits the producers’ records. Convincing community members that honeybush could be grown commercially was another story. “Most people in Haarlem were bought up in a wild-harvesting culture and couldn’t believe honeybush farming would work,” Charlton recalls. “They thought it would be a waste of time.”

Today the project consists of 33 members. Orchards were established and expanded as money became available. The first commercial 10ha were planted around 2000 and provided 10 of the members with land. “We were still very inexperienced at the time, so we had problems with insects and pruned the bushes wrongly,” Charlton explains. “Naturally this hurt our yields.” He adds that, since commercial production of honeybush is still new, research is still needed to identify optimal production methods.

The next 10ha, providing 10 more members with land, was planted in 2005. “We had more experience and were able to treat the bushes the right way from the start,” Charlton recalls happily. “With the correct pruning and management, we could harvest between 3kg to 4kg of honeybush per plant.” Yields are currently around 3t/ha to 4t/ha, but this could increase to 7t/ha under optimal management.

The next 10ha will hopefully be planted by August this year. Overcoming obstacles Charlton complains that this year’s plantation could already have been established if the Haarlem Municipality were a little more accommodating. “We struggled for almost three years to get a lease from the municipality for fertile land that has been lying unused for years. It was the same story when we started the project and tried to obtain land – nobody at the municipality wanted to take responsibility for the land, resulting in huge delays before we could start producing and earn an income.” Another problem is that the road to the plantation was destroyed during last year’s floods.

“Now we can’t establish the new plantations even though the soil has already been ripped, because the municipality still hasn’t fixed the road,” says Charlton. “Even so, we’ve already received our first bill for renting the fields.” Charlton hopes the project can be extended to ultimately give the producers 5ha each. He explains that producing 1ha is not financially viable: it helps to augment income, but it doesn’t allow people to quit their jobs and farm honeybush full-time.

As a result, most of the beneficiaries either have to tend to their lands over weekends and holidays or hire occasional help if they’re too busy. The small area under production and long wait for land to be made available also hamper these farmers’ competitiveness against major commercial growers. “Producing honeybush is in our blood,” Charlton argues. “We’ve done it for years.

 We should be the top sellers, but unfortunately for us, many commercial farmers have also seen the gap in the market. They have better access to finance and can expand much easier and faster than we can. We’re also comparatively small, so we have less negotiation power over price.” Assets and advantages Seedlings for the project are grown in Haarlem by a nursery belonging to Evelyn Thysse, whom the locals fondly refer to as Aunt Evelyn.

She has been running the Haarlem seedling nursery since 1999, won the Top Producer in the Informal Market Award in the Female Farmer of the Year competition in 2002 and was second runner-up in the National Market category a year later. In 2007, she also won the regional and national Jet Community Award in her division.

The nursery employs eight people. A major accomplishment was the organic certification the project attained through Ecocert at the start of the year, although Charlton was rather concerned about the R20 000 cost of certification. “We’re hoping it will add value to the product and translate into higher earnings – if it doesn’t we really won’t be able to afford certification again,” he said at the time of the interview. A few weeks later, certification paid off when Pick ‘n Pay agreed to market the Haarlem Honeybush tea from April this year, and the price attained for the tea’s wet material increased by 80%. Contact Charlton Fortuin on (079) 623 4101. |fw