Berry farming takes root in E Cape

24 June 2013

At just 23, Lamla Nokubeka has mastered the art and science of growing blueberries for export in a controlled environment. Nokubeka is the manager of Gxulu Berries, located in Keiskammahoek in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, and he says he loves his job.

He has learned a lot about growing the nutritious fruit in the short time he has been at the farm – he joined it in June 2011 – under the tutelage of Martin Flanegan, Gxulu Berries’ project manager.

Nokubeka is in charge of 17 employees on the farm, six of whom are women. “The good part is that most of them are young people who have taken a very keen interest in blueberry farming,” he says.

During its development stage, the farm created temporary jobs for 53 villagers. The 17 permanent employees were retained and received specialist on-the-job training.

Gxulu Berries is part of the Amathole Berries Outgrowers Programme, which includes the Sinqumeni Berries and Iqunube Berries projects. The programme was initiated by Amathole Economic Development Agency, also known as Aspire, with funding assistance from the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation, the Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, and the Eastern Cape Development Corporation.

The programme aims to develop 300 hectares of blueberry farmland in Amathole – a district characterised by lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment and poverty – with a focus on emerging farmers and rural communities.

Since its conception in 2009, the programme has cultivated market linkages with some of South Africa’s biggest retailers, including Pick n Pay and Woolworths. It has also broken through to overseas markets, notably the United Kingdom, and is looking at tapping into the Chinese and Indian markets.

As the programme matures, there are also plans for Gxulu Berries, Sinqumeni Berries and Iqunube Berries to become the main suppliers of a proposed berry packhouse in nearby Amabele. Gxulu Berries, located in picturesque Keiskammahoek, is owned by the community of Upper Gxulu and consists of nine hectares of orchards.

Last season, the project harvested 50 kilograms of berries, Flanegan told officials from the IDC and the Amathole Economic Development Agency during their visit the farm in March.

“The plants are still fairly young, but we want to squeeze 500 kilograms this season,” Flanegan said.

Blueberries have been described by nutritionists as nutrition powerhouses packed with antioxidants that combat cancer and other diseases, and with cholesterol-lowering properties that promote heart and urinary health and prevent macular degeneration. They are also said to be an excellent anti-diabetes food, both in prevention and control of the disease.

Gxulu Berries grows the northern highbush variety. The plant is kept fairly short by trimming and pruning until it matures at head height, according to Flanegan. “The blueberry plants love water, and to keep them happy we have put up a fancy irrigation system.”

For maximum yield, the plants are kept in greenhouses at temperatures of below 7°C for 350 hours. “These conditions stimulate flowering and fruit setting,” Flanegan said. The young plants, still in their plastic bags, are sprayed with pesticides to keep away disease. The bags are removed when the plants mature.

During the visit, workers could be seen bent low, tending to the lush young plants in long greenhouses. Nokubeka explained: “They are separating dead plants from live ones. Some of them are adding sawdust to the plants, which acts as mulch.”

The farm also has a nursery where younger plants are nurtured. Cuttings from fully grown blueberry plants are planted in a controlled environment until they reach a certain height, before being transferred to the greenhouses.

Sinqumeni Berries is situated on land previously owned by the Sothenjwa family near Lower Zingcuka village. Construction of the 5-hectare orchards began in February 2012 and is nearing completion. The project has created 25 temporary jobs for villagers and four permanent posts.

The 4-hectare Iqunube Berries project is in the pipeline and will be developed at the Fort Cox College of Agriculture and Forestry.

Source: Industrial Development Corporation