The declining profitability of sugar farming prompted Chris Roux, owner of Paradise Creek Farms in Hectorspruit, Malelane in Mpumalanga, to diversify his operation in 2016 by including sweet peppers.
The following year, when his sons Antonie and Eugene were looking for ways to earn some pocket money, they planted a few rows of chillies.
“But we struggled to sell them,” recalls Roux.
“The market is sensitive and if the volumes are too high, there are few buyers. So I looked for a more formal market, approaching packhouses that supplied chillies to supermarkets. We ended up being asked to supply a wide range of chilli varieties on a consistent basis, so we expanded our production.”
Since the cultivation of peppers is similar to chillies, the addition of the spicier variety fitted well into the production cycles on Paradise Creek.
A wide range
Paradise Farms has 6ha planted to chillies. These comprise six types and a total of 17 varieties, including cayenne, Habanero, serrano, jalapeño and bird’s eye.
Roux explains that they are still in the process of evaluating which varieties work best on the farm, hence the wide range of chillies within each type.
“I also base my decisions on what the market wants, and on the sizes and colours that are available at certain times of the season. The biggest challenge is to get consistency in the product right through the year, as this is what earns a premium. But this is what we strive for.”
Yields range from 5t/ ha to 15t/ ha, depending on the variety.
The Hectorspruit climate is well suited to chilli production, with winter temperatures seldom reaching below 10°C and summer highs of up to 45°C. The seedlings are planted around March, with the chillies harvested from May to December.
The soil is ripped and disced at the start of the season, and compost and gypsum are added at rates of 30t/ha and 1t/ ha respectively. The exact amounts are based on soil analysis.
The compost comprises sugar cane plant waste (bagasse) obtained from the nearby sugar mill, and citrus peels from juicing factories.
The composting process has to be managed carefully to produce the optimal balance of temperature, moisture and air for breaking down the materials and killing any harmful pathogens. In particular, the compost must not be too dry, otherwise the beneficial organisms go into dormancy and composting slows down.
“Our soil is quite heavy, and we struggle to get enough aeration, so the compost helps improve the soil structure,” explains Roux.
“We make ridges to improve water drainage and aid aeration. We often get a lot of rain all at once, and it’s important that the roots are not submerged in water for long periods as the trees will drown.”
Seeds are sent to a nursery to germinate, and the seedlings are planted 30cm apart in the row, with a 1,5m inter-row spacing. The type of farm equipment and machinery is also taken into account when calculating the spacing, so that the same tractors and spraying equipment can be used on the chillies and peppers.
Professionally germinated seeds are the key to success, stresses Roux.
“[Germinating] seedlings is a science of its own, and one needs to choose a nursery very carefully. If the roots are not developed correctly, the plants are weak, which results in lower yield.”
The chillies are drip-irrigated and require approximately one hour of irrigation in winter. This is lengthened as the temperature rises.
According to Roux, chillies require a fertiliser mix that is straightforward and similar to that used on other plants: phosphates for root development at the beginning of the production cycle, nitrogen for growth, and calcium to improve nutrient uptake. Once flowering starts, they need potassium for good fruit set and more calcium to prevent blossom-end rot.
“We try to farm biologically as far as possible to keep our maximum residue levels (MRLs) low and so maintain market access. I believe that farming biologically is the best way to do this,” he says.
A key step in the biological farming process is to ensure that enough organic matter is applied to the soil, he adds. Compost feeds beneficial micro-organisms in the soil, increasing their populations and thus helping to protect the plant against soil pathogens. This applies particularly to newly planted seedlings, which are more vulnerable.
“Damping off can also be a problem, so the plant must not be planted too deep,” says Roux.
“If the stem is surrounded by damp soil and remains wet for too long, it develops a fungus and rots off. To counter this, we use Trichoderma fungi to treat the soil at planting, and take care to plant the seedlings level with the soil. Trichoderma fungi work against harmful insects and organisms and feed the plant so that it is more resistant.
“When we plant, we use an insecticide that stays active for 30 days to prevent any insect damage. By the time we harvest, the chemicals are long gone, so our MRLs are not affected.”
Roux and his team also add Metarhizium fungi to the irrigation water and apply it again later as a foliar spray. The fungi act like parasites on harmful insects and effectively disrupt their life cycle.
“The problem is that we struggle with diseases like powdery mildew, which is a fungus. But if we spray a fungicide, it kills beneficial fungis like Metarhizium. This is by far my biggest challenge as a biological farmer: trying to manage the process of growing a good crop without chemicals.”
Roux uses products containing seaweed extract in his irrigation cycle; these act as immune boosters of sorts and strengthen the plant, while feeding beneficial micro-organisms.
Adding Bacillus subtilis bacteria also aids healthy soil and microbial life. All of these help create an ideal environment for the plant, resulting in a strong tree that is pest- and disease-resistant. In this way, the use of chemicals can be greatly reduced, and in some cases eliminated.
Roux laments, however, that while there are many biological product solutions on the market, few people understand how to use them correctly in combination.
“There are products for insects and fungi, but using them in such a way that the beneficial insects and fungi remain, while the harmful elements are eliminated, is a challenge.”
Keeping weeds under control is another hurdle to jump. “We use herbicide between the rows, using a shield to protect the chillies, and remove the weeds by hand. A plastic mulch can be used to suppress weeds, but plastic accumulates quickly with each new crop rotation.”
Harvesting is labour-intensive; it requires about 20 people per 10ha and takes place weekly as the plants produce fruit constantly.
“The smaller the chilli, the more is needed to fill a crate, so it can take one picker an entire day to fill two crates. People are paid per kilogram picked, so those who work hard earn more. Each person has a tag that is scanned when the crate is weighed, and the money is allocated accordingly. This makes it easier to budget, as we can see over a season what the harvest has cost us per kilogram, and compare it with income actually received,” says Roux.
Paradise Farms is GlobalGAP-accredited, but as its packhouse is not accredited to pack for supermarkets, the chillies are sorted on the farm and then sent to an accredited packhouse for packing.
Securing a market
Roux notes that most chillies produced locally are Thai types sold on the hawker market.
“Some years work out well, others not, depending on how many farmers decided to plant chillies. It’s a small market that’s sensitive to fluctuations in volume.”
Planting for retailers has its own set of difficulties.
“They want a certain type, size and colour at certain times of the year, or even all year round, which is even more challenging. A chilli tree doesn’t produce the same size chilli throughout the season, so we need to have a variety of cultivars and sizes.”
Roux thinks the market for chillies is expanding due to the growing number of South Africans who enjoy hot food.
“Jalapeños didn’t have much of a market before chilli poppers became popular. But overall growth is somewhat limited. We won’t see the same growth as in avocados, for example.
“My advice to new growers is to first find a market and then plant. To plant in bulk and hope you’ll get everything sold seldom works and isn’t sustainable.”
Email Chris Roux at [email protected].