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Grape grower Andre Vermaak - Silverlands

Namibia: 100% field packing next season

In the world of grape growing, the Aussenkehr valley in Namibia is a relative newcomer, though it has the perfect climate for growing grapes. It is a hot, arid climate with temperatures reaching into the 50s. At these temperatures it is too hot for fruit flies and other pests which means growers are not required to spray as much as in other growing regions.

On a recent trip to the valley, FreshPlaza went along to see Andre Vermaak, who has been involved in growing grapes in the valley for around 16 years.

In the first years he worked for Capespan but made the move to set up a brand new company, Silverlands in September 2014. Silverlands is one of the biggest growers in the valley, it is asset managed by a company in London that only invests in agriculture in Africa.

The valley is situated on the banks of the Orange River so water has never been a concern, until this year that is. According to Andre the water has just always been there.

"We never really thought about it," he said. "The rain falling in the Limpopo region needs to fill the dams and service the Johannesburg area and fill up all the dams on the way. Normally there is enough water to go round but South Africa has been in a drought situation for a couple of years now and only release the water as we need it." He is confident that the water will come though.

One effect of the drought conditions will be less of the cultivars like Sucra One, which will be especially short in the Westerns Cape and Kakamas areas in South Africa. In the Western Cape growers had to cut irrigation, post harvest, which affected the following season's production.

"In Aussenkehr the season will be average and may come to a quick end," according to Andre.

Field packing
Silverland is one of the few companies who do field packing as opposed to the more normal high-tech packhouse packing. Packing in the field is done in teams of three, one picker and two packers and is much less labour intensive than packing in the packhouse. The grapes go from the vine to the coldstore in an hour.

"I love the concept of field packing. The stems stay green much longer than when they are packed in the packhouse and there is no bruising on the fruit. We have had very few cases of underweight punnets.

"Every evening by 6 o'clock our workers are at home and they can cook, wash clothes and see the kids, while some of the packhouse workers don't get home until 10 or 11 at night and are back up at 4 in morning and they can pack 7 days a week. It is a rested person who comes back to work the next day here. I am going to change to 100% field packing next season, this is the last year I will pack in the packhouse."

Years ago field packing in Africa was frowned upon by the retailers and they would not take the fruit, but now it is an accepted method of packing and just as hygienic as the packhouse.

But so far it has been a good season. As the earliest producer in the Southern Hemisphere, Namibia can take advantage of a period when there is very little, if any, other grapes on the market.

"Last week (wk 49), the situation in the market was perfect and when the volumes from the Orange River (ZA) reach the market they should still get good prices," said Andre. "These prices are expected to hold till week 51."

The fruit from Aussenkehr had arrived on the European market the previous Saturday and according to Andre it was in excellent condition. It was also all pre-sold.

As a new company Silverlands prefers to work on fixed sales, with only 10% on the open market.

They have 3 different sites in production and one for development in Aussenkehr. With around 500ha already in full production and another 500 ha to be developed. Andre hopes to have the new site producing by 2017/8. He intends to plant all new varieties there. Each year 8% replanting is done, all with the new varieties.

The trend is towards unseeded varieties, but there are some seeded varieties which are good for the Asian market, but even they are moving towards the seedless ones, according to Andre.

At the moment Silverlands only supplies the UK market but are planning to grow varieties for the Chinese/Asian market. Growers in Aussenkehr are well placed to supply red varieties for the Chinese New Year, but this does depend on when it falls, as it differs from year to year.

It is difficult for companies to expand at the moment due to the water and power issues; the Government have increased the supply of electricity but just have to distribute it. Without sufficient power the water can't be pumped from the river for irrigation.

The goal for Namibia is for 10 million cartons by 2020, they predict 6 million cartons will be exported this season. Looking at all the newly planted hectares and unplanted areas is it easy to imagine 10 million cartons in a few year's time.

"We need to put Namibia on the map. We have changed the whole attitude of the pioneers. Years ago you could put anything on the market because there was no competition, now we have had to up standards to equal the rest. Now every load is inspected. This was what we needed in Namibia."

"The PPECB inspected our grapes for years, although it was not required for export. We now have our own inspection board which is being trained by the PPECB and this is a good thing as we can go to any retailer with our standards - you can export without being inspected but the markets would not accept them.

Namibia has no quarantine period for new rootstocks and there is no waiting list, so they can be shipped and planted right away. Due to the climate a new vine can produce volumes within two years.

Many predictions have been made over the years about one country, or one region within a country, which would 'take over' the market, but these have notreally panned out.

"It was said 30 years ago that Chile would really affect the South African grape industry. They also said Brazil would affect exports from Namibia, but that didn't happen either. You just really need to perfect your own production."

Andre's first priority is to look at how the varieties perform; volumes need to be profitable, and the grapes need to have a good shelf live. It takes 30-34 days till they are on the shelves. "You can have a great varieties which have good volumes and great taste but if they can't get to the markets in good shape it won't work."

"Here we have 6-8 weeks of production so we need to look at the cold storage and plan the development to get 200,000 cartons each week. We do run into the early South African season, but that is when we have our red varieties, Jack Salute, Crimson etc or black ARRA 14 which are ready to harvest when South Africa only has Flame available. If you plant a late variety in an early area you can still get the to the market in early January when no else has these varieties."

For more information:
Andre Vermaak
Tel: 00264 63 297359
Email: [email protected]