Beetroot for beginners (1)

This crop is ideal for small-scale farmers, says veggie expert Bill Kerr.

Strong healthy leaves are essential for bunching beetroot.
Photo: Bill Kerr

Emerging farmers often have difficulty producing vegetable crops because they do not have the money to invest in order to be successful. But beetroot does not require specialist equipment and input costs are relatively low. A popular vegetable in all areas, beetroot is also easy to sell. Commercial farmers are moving away from bunching and mechanising their lifting operations, due to the high cost of labour. This, however, is less of a problem for small operators.

There is always a market for bunched beetroot – for two reasons. First, fresh, healthy leaves prove the beetroot is fresh, and make it look attractive. Second, the leaves are eaten as spinach in rural areas. In fact, beetroot is closely related to Swiss chard (spinach) and will cross- pollinate with it. So, if you retain some beetroot for seed production, make sure that Swiss chard is not flowering at the same time.

If you decide to target local markets in rural areas with fresh, bunched beetroot, choose the best variety and manage it carefully to encourage good, healthy leaf growth free of insect damage and disease. This will be discussed in a following article. With some crops, such as cabbage and broccoli, you have to grow F1 hybrids to make a success of the venture, but this is not so with beetroot.

Hybrid beetroots do have a slightly higher yield and uniformity, but the open pollinated varieties are still very good. The price difference between the two is huge. Beetroot is adapted to a wide range of soils, but does not like them to be too acid. If your soil is very acid, work in calcitic agricultural lime; this will also benefit the crops that follow the beetroot.

High-sodium, heavy soils

Beetroot is very tolerant of soil with a high salt content that may be a limitation for many other crops. In fact, it does even better when the sodium levels are high. Beetroot also thrives in very heavy soil. When grown in a heavy black turf,
the roots will be of a better colour and quality. Although you can grow beetroot in sandy soils, it’s more of a challenge. Eelworm is more active, the nutrients leach easily, and water management is difficult.

Watch out for Eelworm
Beetroot is highly vulnerable to eelworm. Two main types are especially damaging: beetroot cyst eelworm and root knot eelworm. For small-scale operators, the latter is more likely to be a problem. Root knot eelworm causes lumps on the roots, making it unattractive and preventing the plant from extracting sufficient water and nutrients from the soil. Yield is greatly reduced. Make sure the previous crop was free from this pest before planting, especially when going into summer.