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Gerhard Crous - Oukraalsvlei, Bergendal Maneberg

Unity is strength on Cape fruit and wine farm

The six farms owned by Bergendal Maneberg Properties are busy all year, growing fruit and wine, rooibos and grain between the Olifants River Mountains and the Piket Mountains of the Western Cape. Primarily known as the seat of Piekenierskloof Wines, nineteen years ago it was among the earliest farming enterprises to set up a workers’ trust to invest employees with a sense of ownership.

Today almost 150 employees are included in the trust, a flagship model of transformation, brought into being through an open relationship between employees and management.

Gerhard Crous, production manager on the farm Oukraalsvlei in Eendekuil with 200ha of orchards and wine vineyards under irrigation, says he can tell a marked difference in staff morale over the past few years.

“It’s all of the small things that you do on a farm: you give soft skills training and education, you talk to employees. I see the positive that comes from the skills development levy paid to Agriseta. You can’t run away from your social responsibility.”

Bergendal`s Fair Trade accreditation bears witness to these endeavours.

Major dried fruit producer
The nectarine, apricot and peach harvest starts in November; some for fresh export and for retail sales, but much of it also for drying.

“On the farm Bergendal there is one of the larger fruit drying facilities in South Africa, supplying Pepsico (the old SAD) and At Source in Ceres who pack premium dried fruit for Woolworths. We also planted a lot of Early BC pears for dried fruit. They’re not yet fully bearing, and we also buy in fruit to dry,” he explains.

“The only hamper to our deciduous operations is the harbour. I felt it at the end of 2022 when some of our export nectarines got stuck in Cape Town, eventually taking 60 days to get to the UK. Then you first get the photo of the decay and the next thing you get the bill – you have to pay in!”

Easy peelers easily marketed
On Bergendal, in Citrusdal, there is a further 200ha of deciduous fruit and citrus. There has been a tremendous expansion in easy peelers in Citrusdal and towards Elands Bay over the past few years.

The citrus season will kick off at the end of March with early clementines. Their easy- peeler catalogue is continually adjusted, but they prefer following the lead when it comes to the introduction of untested cultivars. They have figured out a successful recipe for Clemenluz, marketed under Andes, Crous notes, and they expect similar success with the recently planted Octubrina. Citrus exports are predominantly for the USA, Europe and the UK.

“Our citrus is quite good, it’s easier to export,” he says, remarking that they save significantly not having to spray against citrus black spot fungus (CBS) as their citrus colleagues in other provinces need to.

Gerhard Crous, Oukraalsvlei's production manager (photos by Dianca Yssel)

Rooibos production expands
The leguminous rooibos shrub is grown for the Carmièn tea company where the finely chopped leaves are sweated and dried to make the tea beloved by South Africans and elsewhere, notably Germany, Switzerland and Japan.

“Years ago the biggest area for rooibos stretched from Citrusdal into the mountains, the Cederberg, taking in Nieuwoudtville and Clanwilliam. Over the last eight to ten years lots of guys have started planting rooibos in the Swartland, even on the West Coast at Yzerfontein and Darling.”

He notes that ideally a seven year lifespan is expected from the rooibos plant, but the heavy rains of the past winter and waterlogged soil have killed a fair number.

Lurking fungi quickly destroy whole crop
Piekenierskloof Wines is fed by 300 hectares of vineyards from different wine areas, both irrigated and dryland. Within the vineyards, microclimates create problems, sometimes unbeknownst until a fungal disease spreads like wildfire: he knows what it’s like.

“Three years ago I nearly lost my whole crop of Chardonnay to powdery mildew,” he says.

Initially sceptical when first encountering the Grape Compass, an application developed specifically for the South African wine industry to predict fungal risk scenarios five days ahead, he was soon impressed by the accuracy of their weather predictions (more accurate than the South African Weather Service, he says).

No replacement for walking through the orchard, he remarks, but powerful intelligence on what botrytis, downy mildew and powdery mildew might be up to, given reigning conditions.

“We have a saying: after you put on your belt, also add a pair of suspenders so you’re never caught with your pants down. There’s definitely a gap in the market for something like Grape Compass and it’s quite easy to use.”

The Grape Compass app showing the risk posed by botrytis and downy mildew every six hours

Chemical sales representatives will naturally encourage frequent applications to a set schedule, but in their experience, Grape Compass has shown it’s not always needed.

By being certain that a chemical application is needed – and crucially, when it’s not – he has managed one fewer spray on most of the wine grape blocks, but equally he has learned which problem blocks (often Chardonnay in low-lying, humid areas) need two additional chemical applications to keep fungal populations in check.

“When you can avoid a spray, vehicle costs and operator costs come down a lot. That’s one of the main things where you save on [reduced] applications.”

For more information:
Gerhard Crous
Oukraalsvlei, Bergendal Boerdery
Tel: 0721098194
Email: [email protected],za