Frans and Meg Gerber bought their original 109ha farm from Meg’s father’s estate in 1986. They built a packhouse and signed a deal with Kenlly Farms to harvest the Knysna fern (Rumohra adiantiformis).
When the contract ended less than two years later, Frans went from door to door seeking new customers. His determination paid off: he signed five contracts and the family business Forest Ferns grew from there to harvest a variety of ferns on more than 150 000ha.
“Overseas clients came out to visit and suggested new products. They’d walk in the forest and see products they liked. If these were viable and sustainable, we went into commercial production,” says Johan Gerber, CEO of Forest Ferns.
Exposed to his parents’ business since the age of 10, Johan started a freight forwarding company in 1999 that handled all the exports for Forest Ferns and other clients. Based in Port Elizabeth, he has been fully involved in the running of Forest Ferns since 2012, spending three days a week in Tsitsikamma.
Forest Ferns currently employs 100 staff for its export business. Forty more employees work in the tourist arm of the business at Fernery Lodge, which boasts six luxury suites.
In addition to the Knysna fern, Forest Ferns produces pennygum, an exotic eucalyptus variety, Ruscus from Italy, leather leaf, a Rumohra hybrid from South America, and Typha grass.
“We’ve also built up root stock on the one side of the farm,” says Johan. “Tsitsikamma has generally poor soil and plants grow slowly, so we need big areas to be able to harvest sustainably because certain areas have 15-month cycles. You can’t fertilise and hope to get a crop off in a year – it doesn’t work like that here.”
Coral fern (Gleichenia alpina) is the company’s biggest seller by far, accounting for 40% of exports. Last year alone, 7,5 million stems of coral fern were exported, along with 3,7 million stems of Typha grass, which accounts for 30% of exports.
Coral fern is also the quickest of the harvested products to recover. In fact, it is considered a weed by the local forestry department.
“It’s a fire hazard to them in the forest, so they spray and poison the ferns,” explains Johan. “We have an agreement with them to spray only 10m deep on either side of the road, leaving the middle section for us to harvest.”
Restrictions differ between the conservation areas and plantations, he adds. The Knysna fern, for example, is the most regulated plant, with a picking cycle of 15 months in conservation areas, the longest rest period of all Forest Ferns products.
The plantation owners also manage the conservation areas between their lands. “Here we’re restricted to harvesting no more than 50% of the pickable leaves,” explains Johan.
“In the pine plantations, because of spraying, pruning and harvesting, we work with minimal restrictions, because when they fell a forest there’s nothing left, and they spray for weeds too.”
Cultivated crops are treated similarly to wild crops. “We irrigate and fertilise, but don’t do pest control. We grow a few exotic high-value products because cultivating ferns couldn’t sustain the business,” he explains.
The Knysna fern takes about 18 months to grow to maturity. “It grows slowly, but the climate here is temperate with rain all the year round, so we can plant anytime,” says Johan. His team harvests products daily. Coral ferns are placed in a refrigerated truck immediately after harvesting and delivered to the packhouse three times a day.
Other products are kept wet by water carts and delivered to the packhouse. They spend the night in a cold room and are packed the following day. The stems are sent to Port Elizabeth 180km away twice a week for exporting.
Johan supplies his Cape Town customers three days a week, and the Multiflora auction in Johannesburg twice a week.
“Nothing is with us longer than two to three days before it goes out,” he says.
The cold chain is maintained throughout the harvesting and packing process. “If you keep the temperature at 1°C, it’s ideal. If the temperature jumps to 20°C for a few hours, the degradation is extreme. Greenery stays under 5°C from the time it’s picked,” he explains.
International and local sales
Forest Ferns sells about 6t of leaves per week – 3,5t of coral fern, grasses and reeds for export and 2,5t of fynbos for the local market. The international flower market has shrunk over the past five years, but the greenery market has shown small growth.
Johan thinks this is possibly because adding greenery allows for a cheaper bouquet. Overseas, high-value products such as flowers are grown in hothouses, whereas greenery comes almost entirely from developing countries.
Living from one contract to another
“Our contracts range from one to three years, so security of contracts is definitely the greatest risk of the business,” says Johan. “Cape Pine accounts for more than half of our production. We also have contracts with PG Bison, Geo Parks and a few smaller landowners.”
The company exports directly to Holland, Germany and Switzerland and also supplies Cape Town Exporters, who sell Forest Ferns products into the US, UK, Middle East, China and Korea.
In addition to supplying the Muliflora auction in Johannesburg, Forest Ferns sells to a number of florists along the Garden Route. The company also sells to the public directly, through the Forest Ferns nursery, and provides tourist accommodation set amid wild ferns.
“We grow the business wherever we can,” says Johan. “We pay a tender price to work the area so it’s in our interest to work as many products as we can and find new and different markets for them.”
Forest Ferns used to be GlobalGAP certified, but this proved to be redundant as it covers only cultivated products, and 90% of Forest Ferns’ products are not cultivated. Cape Flora SA is now the industry body and Forest Ferns is working with the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA).
SIZA is putting together a programme for certifying greenery and foliage according to basic environmental processes. Forest Ferns will migrate to SIZA certification as soon as it becomes available.