The long, hard road to profiting from potatoes

In 1998, at the age of 45, Frans Vlok left his job as head of Kynoch fertiliser services in the Western Cape to pursue his lifelong dream of farming full-time. He was joined in the business eight years later by his daughter, Monique Vlok, who told Glenneis Kriel of their struggle to succeed.

The long, hard road to profiting from potatoes
Potatoes are planted from May to July, when water can be pumped from the river.
Photo: Glenneis Kriel
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For as long as Monique Vlok can remember, her father, Frans, produced vegetables on rented land near Citrusdal. When the company he worked for was bought out, he took his package and in 2003 cashed in all his investments to buy the farm Valskuil near Piketberg in the Western Cape.

Buying the 650ha property was one thing. Turning it into a commercially viable potato farm was an entirely different matter, says Vlok, who today is in charge of Valskuil’s finances, amongst her other roles.

The first six years were especially difficult, as the farm was undeveloped. While there were planting strips, the land had to be cleared to create circles that could be irrigated by pivot. Boreholes had to be sunk, irrigation pipes laid, a packhouse built and additional implements acquired.

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Monique Vlok potato farmer
Monique Vlok has been helping her father, Frans, on their potato farm near Piketberg since 2008.

Vlok says they tried to keep costs as low as possible and initially rented most of the implements until they could afford to buy second-hand equipment.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is to try to look rich or keep up appearances,” she says. “The problem is that interest is extremely expensive, so it’s better to rely on cash, if possible.”

She adds that the trouble with developing a farm from scratch is that each farm is unique because of differences in climate, production, management and size. For this reason, one cannot simply “cut and paste what’s working on other farms to guarantee your farm’s success”.

Poor seed
To exacerbate matters, the Vloks suffered severe losses early on due to the use of poor-quality seed potatoes.

“Being new to potato production, we didn’t at first realise that harvests were down because of the poor quality of the seed potatoes. We were constantly re-evaluating our production procedures to try to work out what we were doing wrong,” she says.

“There were many days when my father sat with his head in his hands, ready to quit. But my mother, Marietjie, encouraged him, saying, ‘We didn’t come this far for nothing’.

“My mother, who passed away from breast cancer in 2015, was a huge contributor to the farm’s success by believing in my father’s vision and financially supporting the family with her nursing job. At one stage, she kept the farm afloat by quitting her job to cash in her pension.”

To keep overheads low, the Vloks do as much as possible themselves. They keep their own books, manage their administration, and try to carry out their own repairs before calling a professional.

Valuable networks
Having a staff component of only three permanent workers also keeps costs low, as there is no need for a farm manager, a post which usually goes with a higher salary, a farm bakkie and housing.

“Our permanent workers are amazing. They’re diligent, think on their feet and use their own initiative,” says Vlok. “Up to 25 seasonal workers are employed during the season, which is challenging, but still few enough to handle without a farm manager.”

Valuable networks have been forged over the years. Vlok has joined farm study groups and forums, and the farm frequently participates in research trials, all of which help them stay in touch with the latest technological development and production trends.

She also serves on the Conservation Farming Forum of the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, belongs to the potato seed producers’ work group of the South African Potatoes Producers’ Association, and regularly attends research symposiums.

“Being actively involved in the industry helps keep us informed,” she says. “At one stage, there was huge hype about the use of calcium as foliar feed. Research, however, has shown that potatoes are unable to absorb calcium through their leaves, which means we’d have wasted something like R1 000/ ha if I hadn’t known this.”

Their new seed potato supplier is also extremely supportive.

“One of our recent seed potato supplies rotted only a couple of days after delivery. The suppliers replaced the seed potatoes, with no arguments,” says Vlok.

They are also connected with a strong marketing agency, Namakwaland Plase, which manages the sale of all their potatoes.

Potatoes not sold via the agency are sold either to a wholesaler in Cape Town or directly from the farm.

“We make between R3 and R5 extra on a 10kg bag sold via Namakwaland Plase than we would have if the potatoes were sold at the fresh market. This is because Namakwaland Plase actively promotes and seeks market opportunities. Agents at the fresh markets merely wait for buyers to come to them.”

An added advantage of selling through Namakwaland Plase is transparency. Instead of pushing supplies blindly into the market, the agent tells her the exact volume needed by a specific date.

The agency also takes care of all the logistics.

The challenge for the future is to ensure the farm’s long-term sustainability. Vlok points out that they plant 43ha of potatoes each year, with the same piece of land planted only every fourth year. Valskuil has enough water for another 18ha, but they first want to refine production on the lands where potatoes are currently produced.

Over the past few years, they have planted rye as a cover crop on the lands in winter after removing the potatoes, primarily because it is easy to grow.

Vlok is considering experimenting with crop mixtures to see if this would help to improve soil health.

“Our soil is so dead,” she laments. “It’s really nothing more than a growth medium.”

Mondial is their primary potato variety as the cultivar is in high demand and thrives
on the farm. They have also planted Sifra in the past, but contrary to what the literature promises, the variety suffered more incidents of powdery mildew than Mondial did on the farm.

“Powdery mildew is a problem, especially during wet conditions,” she says.

Planting in Winter
Production has been downscaled this year due to the water shortage.

“We decided not to plant in February, because of the associated borehole pumping costs,” says Vlok.

“In retrospect, it was a good decision. Warm temperatures up to May had a negative impact on production in general. Prices were so low that we would have struggled to break even if we’d supplied the market at the time.”

Planting in winter, from May to July, is cheaper, as water can be pumped from the river.

The risk of heatwaves and running out of water in mid-season is also lower.

On the other hand, the possibility of frost and powdery mildew is higher. And having one’s income-restricted to three months of the year requires shrewd financial management.

“Financial management is just as important as the actual production of crops, because we wouldn’t be able to grow anything the next year without good planning,” she says.

They avoid simply cutting costs everywhere, however, and realise that money must sometimes be spent to ensure better profits in the longer term. For example, to reduce electricity costs, they have started using variable-speed drive starters. They have also switched to a new pivot irrigation package that produces larger droplets to improve water-use efficiency.

“With the larger droplets, we lose less water due to evaporation and the south-easterly wind,” says Vlok.

Fertiliser programme
They use a standard industry fertiliser programme they have adapted over time to suit their production conditions. They apply slow-release granular compost just before it rains, preferring it to liquid compost, which has to be applied with irrigation.

“Because my father knows the chemical industry well, he has been able to make informed decisions when buying fertiliser, especially when it comes to the cost of fertiliser mixtures in relation to their composition,” explains Vlok.

She points out that it is not enough to simply supply fertiliser to plants; a farmer has to apply the correct macro and micro nutrients for each growth stage of the plants, or trouble is sure to arise.

“My journey in the potato industry has been truly blessed. While it is a male-dominated industry, there are many strong men who don’t feel threatened by women in the field. Their support has allowed me and our farm to grow into what we are today.”

Email Monique Vlok at [email protected]