A dentist who decided to plant figs because they’re difficult to find, is now supplying figs to Woolworths’ inland stores and Stef Papendorf of Hillcrest Boerdery is still expanding on his 8ha of figs in the Magaliesberg Mountains, northwest of Johannesburg.
Harvesting has commenced on his oldest Adam fig orchard, of which two-thirds go to Woolworths and the balance, primarily the smaller figs, to the Tshwane fresh produce market, supplying independent greengrocers in Pretoria.
His path to figs was circuitous: initially he had established Protea orchards for the cut-flower industry but a neighbour’s wayward firebreak destroyed much of their Proteas and they were forced to look for a replacement crop. This was about a decade ago and he was considering either pomegranates or figs.
The harvest team with crates of Adam figs
Meanwhile, from a neighbour’s Adam fig tree in the mining town of Rustenburg he had made 80 cuttings and planted them out in his heavy clay soil. The Adam fig is one of the oldest cultivars grown in South Africa, akin to the Black Genoa. Stef Papendorf invited well-known horticulturalist Keith Wilson to his farm to advise him on pomegranates. When the latter saw the six month-old trees, he told him forget pomegranates, go for figs, as the soil is too heavy for pomegranates anyway.
He started his fig farming with the purple Adam fig, taking cuttings from his oldest orchard to establish more orchards. Today he has 5,000 fig trees, mostly Adam and Deanna, with some White Kadota just for jam-making.
There isn’t much expansion in figs in the north of South Africa – countrywide there’s just 200ha under figs, by some estimates, concentrated in the Western Cape – and Stef wants to do it a bit differently. He explains his decision to stake his new expansion on the Deanna fig, a cultivar developed at the University of California. “Everyone is planting the purple fig, the Parisienne and Ronde de Bordeaux, but Europeans are crazy about the large, green, sweet fig. I don’t want to plant what everyone else is planting, I’m focusing on the white fig.”
These Deanna trees were planted in February 2017
The Deanna has a leathery skin, which opens up the possibility of exports. The UK market would be an obvious choice for South African figs. He planted 1,200 Deanna trees about a year ago and the trees are true to their reputation of vigour. Their yield is also reputedly particularly high, as much as seven times that of the Adams fig and in trials in Citrusdal it has produced three times more than White Genoa.
His years of Protea cultivation has left him with a distaste for chemical spraying and the sink it creates for insect populations to fill. He ended up totally relying on biological control with his Proteas and he’s doing the same with his figs, which has worked well for him. False codling moth could be a problem and he sets out traps but fortuitously his blueberry-planting neighbours keep the pressure off his orchards. He regards losses to birds – which is not more than 10% - with indulgence. Soil preparation is minimal, based on minimum-till principles which seek to disturb soil biology as little as possible. His wife’s sheep herd comes in handy. She keeps 500 SA Vleismerino sheep for mutton and their manure is stacked in a pyramid around the base of the tree. “Guineafowl scratch around in the manure, picking out insects, and so everyone on the farm has a job.”
Stef Papendorf with an Adam fig tree
His packing and cooling facilities will expand along with his fig harvest – last year’s 5 tonnes is expected to be between 10 and 11 tonnes this year, with a planned doubling every year for the next few years. This year they paid more attention to thinning out fruit and consequently their fruit size is up this year, resulting in as few as six in a punnet in which up to twelve are allowed. The harvest will run until mid-March, a three month-harvest that starts a few weeks before that of the Cape. The harvest was late this year with none of the usual breba figs on the Adam fig in mid-December.
He designed the circular packing system, an infinity system with no end or beginning, with figs classed into three grades and fourthly 'mampoer' (a potent spirit usually distilled from peaches) grade. The sheep at Hillcrest Boerdery feast on much of the fourth grade figs; word-of-mouth accounts for the waiting list for the mutton of this fig farm.
The packing wheel he designed, with its four concentric lanes for different grades
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