The technical advisor took one look at the sad trees in front of him. “Remove the old wood from the trees,” he commanded.
Ricardo du Preez did not question him. He realised that to save the orchards drastic action was immediately needed.
Today he recollects that removing the old wood, was not only the first step in rejuvenating the orchards and improving the overall condition of the trees, but it was also a symbolic step for him as an emerging deciduous fruit grower. “It worked,” he exclaims, “The trees have now yielded an increased production as a result.”
The deciduous fruit orchards in question belong to the Langfontein Farm – situated on the northern slopes of the Tsitsikamma Mountains overlooking the town of Haarlem in the Langkloof. The farm boasts 85.5 hectares of apples, pears, nectarines, and peaches.
Ricardo explains how he came to be the overseer of Langfontein. “I grew up in Haarlem and had worked for the Cape Agency for Sustainable Integrated Development in Rural Areas, better known as Casidra*, for twenty years. In 2015 I heard about the Department of Rural Development’s negotiations to buy Langfontein and immediately submitted an application to rent the farm.” He was subsequently invited for an interview and after five months of ‘nail biting’ he received the good news that his application had been approved.
Ricardo and his wife, Laetitia, took over the farm on 31 May 2016 and have secured a 30-year lease agreement with the Department of Rural Development. They trade under the name Rica’s Fruit and also have the option to buy the property at some point in the future.
When Ricardo took over the farming operation there were no movable assets in the line of machinery and equipment. They had to hire tractors and spray carts. The Department of Rural Development neglected to pay the farm’s electricity account as they had agreed to and as a result, Langfontein’s electricity was cut off. To get reconnected Ricardo had to pay an R85 000 surety deposit to Eskom.
Things looked bleak was it not for the Jobs Fund initiative…
“The Jobs Fund implemented by Hortgro saved us,” says Ricardo. “We were awarded seven tractors and seven chemical spray-carts, two brush cutters, a mulcher, four crate-wagons and cooling infrastructure.”
Along with the implements they received trees for new orchards. “We expect to receive Joya trees for five hectares in 2018 and ten ha of new orchards in 2019,” says Ricardo.
The 2019 trees will be Big Bucks, a new improved clone selection of Royal Gala discovered by Buks Nel. “I am extremely grateful for the Jobs Fund investment. Without the inputs from the Jobs Fund, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and Hortgro we would have had to end this enterprise.”
Ricardo initially appointed 51 of the employees that worked for the previous owner. This has changed over time and today there are 35 permanent workers. During harvest time they employ an additional 90 seasonal workers.
As part of the rental agreement, Ricardo was urged to find a commercial partner to assist him with production capital. He approached Golden Harvest Fruit Exports and established a formal arrangement with them for five years. Golden Harvest assisted Ricardo with the financing of a packing machine and some production costs. The profits are split between Golden Harvest and Rica’s Fruit. “This assistance has been invaluable for us to establish our business and the long-term plan is to be able to terminate this arrangement in time and fund our own production,” says Ricardo.
“When we started our partnership with Rica’s Fruit in 2017 things on the farm were still quite disorganised as they had just started farming,” recalls Theo Craven, Managing Director of Golden Harvest International. “Initially, when we were negotiating our involvement, the government promised the project recapitalisation funding. This never materialised and so the capital inputs required were considerably higher than expected. Since then, Ricardo and his team have certainly sorted out most of the problems and this year our future prospects are looking a lot more positive,” says Theo.
Ricardo and Laetitia do all the farm administration themselves and within the first six months of running the farm, initiated their first GlobalGAP audit. “We also use Fruitlook satellite imagery to keep a constant watch over the water requirements of our orchards,” says Ricardo.
He acknowledges that to initially change the irrigation system and the mindset of those in charge of irrigation was a challenge, but that the results speak for itself. “We have more effective water-use which ensured our water security during the recent drought. Our dams are currently 100% full and we are registered as water consumers with the Haarlem Irrigation Board for 90ha of water.”
The future certainly looks much rosier for Rica’s Fruit. “Our two sons are both studying at Elsenberg in Stellenbosch and our daughter lives at home and studies through UNISA. It is our future vision that the lease will be transferred to our children one day,” concludes Ricardo.
*Casidra is an implementing agency for the Provincial Government of the Western Cape.