Adding value with frozen vegetables

Angelo De Andrade has earned Agri Gauteng’s Young Farmer of the Year award by processing his own produce on the farm while still supplying fresh produce markets. His family partnership with his brother John Paul and mother Fernanda has maintained a share in the highly competitive local fresh produce market. Annelie Coleman visited Angelo on Lucky Farm near Westonaria.

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The De Andrade family have been producing vegetables on Lucky Farm since 1979, supplying the fresh produce markets in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Expanding onto the farm Klopperskraal brought the area under irrigation to 300ha. The family is also one of the few fresh produce growers in the country to do its own processing, marketing the produce under its own brand, Tender Harvest.

Now Angelo de Andrade, who is responsible for crop planning management and the general management of the processing plant, has been named Agri Gauteng’s Young Farmer of the Year. “We had to find a balance in our business” says Angelo.

 “Although we still achieve the best prices on the fresh produce markets, we had to find a way to add value when the prices fall to production price and lower. That is why we started our blanching and refrigeration plant six years ago. “We used to supply the mines too, but their catering has largely been taken over by catering companies. We had to find a way to recoup our market share.

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“We currently supply 19 different frozen products to Massmart (Makro) in Gauteng and KZN and a variety of private outlets and catering companies in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and KZN. Country vegetables and mixed vegetables are our biggest lines. The business’ turnover now consists of 58% fresh produce, 40% frozen vegetables and 2% commercial beef cattle.”

Between 70% and 80% of the vegetables the plant processes are grown on the farm, exclusively under borehole irrigation. The plant’s output is 2 500t to 3 000t of frozen produce annually. Some 600t of the frozen vegetables are kept in cold storage to ensure consistent supply throughout the year, while the rest are delivered to clients. Half the vegetables are stored in the De Andrades’ 300t-capacity cold storage facility and the other half in commercial facilities.

“We usually buy in the smaller lines such as baby marrows, green peppers and red peppers because of their short growing season, but they’re still a risk,” says Angelo. “The mainline crops such as sweetcorn and green beans are grown, processed and frozen on the farm. The sweetcorn season lasts only four months in this area, so we used to contract farmers in Limpopo in the off season. But then market prices skyrocketed and they didn’t honour their contracts. A vegetable farmer must always weigh up the risk of buying in against the possibility of non-delivery.

An independent family business
“Vegetable farmers in South Africa produce world-class fresh produce so competition is stiff,” Angelo explains. “You have to develop your brand to establish a market for it. Any farmer who reliably produces high-quality products will be rewarded. “It is vital that our frozen vegetable brand, Tender Harvest and our fresh produce brand Lucky Farms are equated with top quality and value for money.

The brands are fairly well-established. “We started branding our fresh produce market products 10 years ago. Lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, sweetcorn are pre-packed to add as much value as possible on farm level. Cabbage, carrots and cucurbit crops are marketed in bulk packaging.”

Angelo’s brother, John Paul, is responsible for all sales and marketing, while mom Fernanda handles administration and accounts. “This way we keep close contact with our customers’ needs and demands and can position our operation accordingly,” explains Angelo.

“We distribute the fresh produce ourselves because it’s more economical, and distribute the frozen vegetables within a 300km radius. “We’re working on becoming EurepGap compliant. Not to enter the export market, but to be level with the major chain store standard. At the current exchange rate we can’t even consider exporting frozen vegetables. “We plan to pillow pack salads in future and are researching and costing issues such as washing and packaging lines.”

Soil and risk management
The secrets to top quality products are proper soil preparation, crop rotation, pest management and fertilisation, Angelo stresses. “We generally use manure sourced from egg houses and feedlots, plus pelletised organic products and top dressing based on crop removal figures and historic soil analysis before planting.

“Pest management is crucial – if caterpillars occur on lettuce, it’s unfit for the market. We inspect the crops regularly, and in high peak season we spray practically weekly with chemicals with different active ingredients to prevent resistance. Summer is the hardest season. Chemicals break down rapidly due to UV irradiation, and contact chemicals in particular evaporate. Pest life cycles are shorter so there’s an explosion of caterpillars, particularly bollworm.”

The weather is one of the greatest risks. “Hailstorms, cloudburst and flooding can cause serious problems,” says Angelo. “Insuring crops is too expensive, so to limit the risk, we plant weekly during the planting season from July to May. “We use fresh-produce-market supply and demand as a market indicator. We also plan to record the cost to company of every piece of equipment to establish a viable replacement policy. Currently we replace tractors that have done heavy duty for four years. We sell those in less than ‘three-star’ condition and keep those in a better condition for light duty work. We use mainly New Holland tractors.” 

Obstacles in Gauteng
Lucky Farm is surrounded by the townships of Bekkersdal and Simunye, but few vegetables are stolen. “But all our fences have been stolen,” says Angelo “After the first rains we’re going to plant bamboo fences, which form a thick barrier two years after planting and serve as a windbreak.” Cable theft can bring the entire operation to a standstill, costing time and money.

Generators for irrigation and refrigeration are too expensive but generators do back up prepack lines in case of power failure. Nearby mining is also an issue. “When it rains, the runoff from the mine dumps washes heavy metals, sulphates and uranium into nearby streams, that flow into the Vaal River, or contaminate nearby boreholes,” says Angelo.

“Fortunately our boreholes aren’t close to mine dumps or streams, and up to now our water has been clean.”Labour is another serious headache. “High labour costs are becoming uneconomical,” he says. “Our long-term goal is to mechanise the entire operation according to European standards, to increase effectiveness and efficiency.”

Call Angelo de Andrade on 082 854 1682.

 

Annelie Coleman represents Farmer’s Weekly in the Free State, North West and Northern Cape. Agriculture is in her blood. She grew up on a maize farm in the Wesselsbron district where her brother is still continuing with the family business. Annelie is passionate about the area she works in and calls it ‘God’s own country’. She’s particularly interested in beef cattle farming, especially with the indigenous African breeds. She’s an avid reader and owns a comprehensive collection of Africana covering hunting in colonial Africa, missionary history of same period, as well as Rhodesian literature.