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South Africa: Adaptation key to vegetable farmer’s sustainable growth

Mike Pedersen-Horn’s advice to anybody wanting to start a vegetable operation, as he did in 2001, is this: “Start small and get to know your soils and crops as you go. Every farm and every soil is different. There’s no substitute for experience.”

Today, Pedersen-Horn plants between 10,000 and 20,000 seedlings a week and supplies chain stores from Butterworth in the former Transkei to George in the Western Cape. He  grew up on Valhalla farm, which was purchased in 1965 by his grandfather, Ernst.

Over the years, portions of the farm were sold off until the family was left with the current 60ha. By the time Pedersen-Horn left school in 1996, his father, Peter, was a sales representative in the former Transkei and only a part-time vegetable/dairy farmer on Valhalla.

Returning to Valhalla in 2001, he finally decided to try his hand at farming. He began by planting a couple of hectares of open-field vegetables, and was soon producing 4,000 cabbages a month. “We went into debt to expand operations,” he recalls. “We cleared bush and installed some irrigation.”

The father-and-son team initially started with crops that could be harvested, transported and marketed easily, such as cabbage and spinach. “We were basically packing under a thorn tree in the shade. That’s how it started off, and we grew slowly.”

Constant adaptation
Over the years, growth at Viking Farming has depended on adapting in the face of significant challenges. For example, after clubroot appeared in the soil in 2015, Pedersen-Horn halted production of all vegetables in the Brassica family. He has since adapted by producing a more diverse line-up of crops, including lettuce, baby marrows, patty pans and spinach, in a demanding open-field rotation system.

“I thought the clubroot would knock me hard but I increased my crops to compensate. I just need to make sure I look after my soils because of the ongoing rotation,” he says.

Over the past three years, tomato production in the ageing tunnels has also become increasingly unprofitable due to a spike in diseases, including curly stunt virus. He has therefore significantly decreased production of this crop and begun growing lettuce in a hydroponic floating raft system (FRS). These include the varieties Green Frilly, Blushed Butter Cos and Batavia.

FRS relies on 24-hour circulation of fertigated water to ensure effective fertilisation and oxygenation; this enables lettuce production in even the hottest months of the year. The rate of production is impressive, with lettuce seedlings (sourced from two local nurseries) taking just three weeks to grow to harvestable plants in summer, and five weeks in winter.

With only 4ha of open lands that can still be developed on Valhalla, vertical development is the only option, and Pedersen-Horn is therefore expanding the hydroponic lettuce initiative. This is despite the significant start-up cost of R125 000 per 300m2 tunnel.

Pedersen-Horn admits that when he started in 2001, he “farmed the soil as hard as he could”, but soon recognised the need for long-term sustainability. “In the beginning I was just planting to generate as much money as fast as possible, but you have to think about the future,” he says. “You need to be sustainable to ensure profitability, especially on such limited land.”

As is the case on all vegetable farms, diseases and pests remain a constant challenge. Pedersen-Horn has therefore focused on a robust spraying regime but using ‘softer’ chemicals. He has also arranged for a bee-keeper to establish hives on his property as his marrows and patty pans depend on open pollination.

Weeding has also presented difficulties over the years as labour represents the greatest cost on the farm after fertilisers, chemicals and electricity. Only casual workers (8 out of a total of 30 staff) weed on Valhalla at a negotiated price for specific blocks, which incentivises them to potentially earn more than some permanent staff.

International accreditation
Valhalla supplies vegetables directly to 18 retail outlets and also to wholesale processors such as ProVeg and Living Harvest. The farm has an accredited packhouse and adheres to a number of food safety regulations and accreditation; these include the Global Food Safety Initiative and GLOBALG.A.P.


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