Agency Development and Support

Berry farm is healthy option

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Berry farm is healthy option

Keiskammahoek is pretty, but there is also plenty of poverty and not a lot of economic opportunity. But it is good blueberry growing country – and that is exactly what Aspire is doing through its Amathole Berries Outgrowers Programme. One farm is up and running and two more are on the way.

June 7, 2013

ADSberries insideMartin Flanegan, Gxulu Berries’ project manager

At just 23, Lamla Nokubeka has mastered the art and science of growing blueberries for export in a controlled environment.

He is the manager of Gxulu Berries in Keiskammahoek, in Eastern Cape, 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.

Located in picturesque Keiskammahoek, Gxulu Berries is owned by the community of Upper Gxulu and consists of nine hectares of orchards. Last season, in 2012, the harvest was 50kg, Flanegan explained to officials from the Industrial Development Corporation’s Agency Development and Support unit and Amathole Economic Development Agency, who visited the farm on 19 March.

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

Blueberries have been described by nutritionists as nutrition powerhouses. They say the little fruit is packed with antioxidants that fight cancer and other diseases. It has cholesterol lowering properties and promotes heart health, prevents macular degeneration and promotes urinary health. Blueberries are said to be excellent anti-diabetes food, both in prevention and control of the disease.

ADSberries inside1Workers tend to young blueberry plants at Gxulu Berries

Gxulu Berries grows the northern highbush variety. The plant is kept fairly short by trimming and pruning until it matures at “head high” 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,” said Flanegan. 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. “They are separating dead plants from live ones. Some of them are adding sawdust to the plants which acts as mulch,” explained Nokubeka.

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, and then they are transferred to the greenhouses.

Gxulu Berries is part of the Amathole Berries Outgrowers Programme, which consists of Sinqumeni Berries and Iqunube Berries. The programme was initiated by Amathole Economic Development Agency, also known as Aspire, with funding assistance from the IDC, the Eastern Cape department of rural development and land reform, and the Eastern Cape Development Corporation.

ADSberries inside2Gxulu Berries is owned by the community of Upper Gxulu

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

The 4ha Iqunube Berries project is in the pipeline and will be developed at Fort Cox College of Agriculture and Forestry. The site will greatly assist in developing blueberry farming skills in the area, according to Aspire.

The Amathole Berries Outgrowers Programme was mooted in 2009 and aims to develop 300 hectares of blueberry farmland in the Amathole district, with a focus on emerging farmers and rural communities. The district is characterised by lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment and poverty. Over the last three years, the outgrowers programme has cultivated market linkages with some of the country’s largest retailers, including Pick n Pay and Woolworths. It has also broken through to overseas markets, notably the United Kingdom. And it is looking at tapping into the Chinese and Indian markets.

In addition, as the outgrowers programme matures, Gxulu Berries, Sinqumeni Berries and Iqunube Berries will possibly be the main suppliers of the proposed Berry Packhouse in Amabele.

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