Steenebrug, Piketberg, Western Cape

Suiderland Plase: From shark liver oil to table grapes and citrus

Steenebrug Farm, part of Suiderland Plase, is pulling out all the stops to survive the drought. So far they have not been obliged to take out or cut down vineyards like some other allied farms. “When I look at the vineyards I can’t believe how well they look. The vineyards are very vigorous, it’s actually astonishing. What you see in the vineyard is the result of healthy root systems and a healthy soil,” says Hanri Venter, general manager on Steenebrug Farm where he has been for 27 years. 

“Our water situation is critical, but not as dire as in some other places in the Western Cape,” he notes. 

The farm has an ace up its sleeve: behind it, in the Piketberg Mountains, there is a 3.5km2 area of exceptionally high rainfall, called Zebrakop. It gets up to 1,100mm of rainfall in normal years but alas these aren’t normal years. Their farm dam is up there in the mountain, pumping water from 7km away. This year, however, the dam is empty, an unprecedented state of affairs, but boreholes are keeping the farm afloat.

“When we start packing grapes from a block, we can reduce irrigation on that block so we save water for February and March. According to our calculations we ought to have enough water to pull us through until April.”

The harvest starts with Early Sweet, Flame, Starlight, then moving to mid-season cultivars like Sable Seedless (Sugra16), Regal, Red Globe, Midnight Beauty. On the two farms making up the Steenebrug production unit of 145ha, 54% is devoted to red seedless varieties and 22% to white seedless. Scarlotta Seedless (Sugra19) is a bit of a speciality on the farm: most of Suiderland’s Scarlotta volumes grow here. It delivers very high yield, 8 to 9,000 cartons a hectare.

Crimson, a stalwart variety, shown here before colour break

“We suffered minimal losses with the heat of two weeks ago but overall, we’ll probably lose a bit on berry size,” Hanri Venter says. “We don’t expect a significant drop in volumes.” By week 1 packing is running on all cylinders, about 107,000 cartons packed that week at Steenebrug, a pace more or less sustained until March.

They’re moving away from early cultivars; following on Namibia and the Orange River there’s less of an advantage to early varieties for this region.
“We believe in putting our clients first, we give them what they’re looking for,” he says and what they’re looking for is increasingly cultivars like Cotton Candy, Sweet Sapphire, Sugra35 (Autumn Crisp) and Sugra34 (Adora). The first harvest of Cotton Candy is expected on another Suiderland farm this year; at Suiderland the vines are of pre-production age and under netting to reduce wind and the resultant marks.

“We have a strong foot in the door in Europe but now we’re looking to expand in the Far East. We already send to the Pacific Rim, like the Philippines. We believe in servicing the entire value chain, from pre-cooling on the farm at 1°C or 1.5°C, in accordance with the new regulations, to our own logistical branch that organises the seafreight.”

Strong focus on human development
Suiderland Plase have always had a maritime connection, but it started at sea, not on land: the company was founded in the 1950s by two close friends, starting off by cooking shark livers to extract the oil, then buying a fleet of boats, expanding into fishing and other fishing processing on land, and only later moving into agriculture. Today some fishing interests remain, but table grapes and citrus are the two main prongs of the business.

Hanri Venter is enthused by bringing out the best in employees. Promising young talent, often the children of employees who’ve spent their entire working career with Suiderland, are given bursaries for agricultural training and come back to do internships. One such candidate will attend Fruit Logistica in Berlin next February. Venter recounts the initial resistance when it was decided to promote women to tractor drivers on the farm, but also the pride these women now have in their elevated position. Many of the seasonal employees, especially in the packhouse, come from far away in the Eastern Cape. At Steenebrug new hostels and dining rooms have been built for them; they spend months away from home. Economic necessity drives them to migrant labour but a sympathetic atmosphere keeps them at Suiderland. 

Photo supplied by Suiderland Plase

For more information:
Hanri Venter
Steenebrug Farm (Suiderland Plase)
Tel: +27 22 913 2150

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