Prepared by Brian Berkman
The last years have been challenging for one and all but, for Andre Cloete, a Tru-Cape apple and pear grower, near Greyton in the Western Cape’s Overberg region, it has been especially hard.
“My wife Charmaine died after suffering from cancer and two of my three sons had Covid and I had to look after them, at home, while continuing my farming business,” Andre Cloete says.
Cloete farms with apples, pears, oats, barley, sheep, and cattle on the Klein Ezeljacht farm. He was nominated by the Western Cape branch of the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa and won the New Entrant Farmer of the Year in 2016.
Cloete, who has 30 years of practical farming experience, started as a farm manager until he entered into a rental agreement with Klein Ezeljacht to farm and manage the land himself. He was also actively involved in the farming community and is a former chairperson of the Caledon North Farmers’ Association, a Director of Deciduous Fruit Development Chamber (DFDC), and the South African Apple and Pear Producers’ Association (SAAPPA). Furthermore, he has been a mentor for other new farmers in the area and often looks for opportunities to employ more people and uplift them.
In the Covid area, which he now describes as the “new normal”, he has become used to the inevitable delays and the impact of people taking time off from work if they think that they have been in close contact with a Covid-positive case.
“The 2021 crop was 6.5% up on 2020 and we managed to pick it in time. It took a lot of effort and a little more stress than I’d like, but we did it. On April 15 we finished picking. Rosy Glow, an apple variety, kicks in from next year and we will have a later crop to pick which will allow us to extend the season,” he says.
“In 2019 we planted our last 6.4 hectares of Bigbucks apples but we only have water for 52 hectares and as we have expanded from 21 hectares to 52 hectares we have applied for permission to use another 20 hectares of water. We will then be a very sustainable farm,” he says.
Cloete says that had they not had good luck in the beginning they would not have had the good quality and prices in the first seven years and, he says, “we might not be sitting here now.” For Cloete, luck and good fortune are synonyms for the Grace of God. His Christian faith is central to everything he does.
“In 2015 we planted 20 Bigbucks trees and achieved beautiful colour and good sizing and a good payout. We now have more than 10 hectares of Bigbucks planted. “The advantage for me is that we can pick once and get it done. Royal Gala, the oldest strain we have, sometimes takes three or more times through the orchard to pick the crop. We can be much more productive with Bigbucks. As soon as Bigbucks delivers 40 to 50 tons per hectare we will remove the old Royal Gala and put in some late varieties like Cripps Pink. We expect this to happen in four or five leaves (years) time. We think Celina pears will do well here. My experience with the low-chill apples is they tend not to have the legs for a long shelf life. This area is getting hotter each year as we are not far from the Villiersdorp/Bossiesveld region,” he says.
According to Cloete, the one lesson that everyone has learned from Covid is to plan properly. “There is no room for error, especially if you have a project on the go like new plantings. Don’t wait for the last moment. We are busy now preparing for oats, wheat and canola with which we did very well last year. And, with the oats planted on about 34 hectares, we can feed our sheep for the next two seasons which is good to know. We are planting more but our irrigation structure was not designed to grow as quickly as we have and the demand for water is much greater than we can supply. This is one of the reasons I removed the vegetable gardens I planted for our staff so I can use the water more strategically. Our plan this winter is to revamp the irrigation system and start planting veggies for our staff next year. Covid really set us back in terms of the role we play in the lives of our people and we all sheltered at home to stay safe and stopped all the sports and group activities because of this. I’m feeling positive, and my staff all seem positive, as they see the growth in the farm and the business and knowing there is a lot of work they understand they will grow with the business. We need to have a healthy core of 22 people and about 10 people are living on the farm.”
Cloete says that since the passing of his wife, Charmaine, at the end of October 2019, he has slowed down and pulled back from the many committees and other community activities. “I’m the only adult here now and it was especially hard when two of my three sons developed Covid and I had to look after them at home. One positive from Covid is the move towards time-saving Zoom meetings so now I don’t have to spend half a day away from the farm just for a one hour’s meeting – that is a very positive development. I’m also especially appreciative of the way that Two-a-Day, which processes, packs and stores my fruit and Tru-Cape which sells my fruit have pulled out all the stops during this difficult time, both in terms of providing updated Covid information and support and in securing excellent prices for the fruit,” Cloete says.
One of the challenges, he says, is dealing with the 16% increase in wages without the concomitant increase in productivity. “Along with increases in minimum wage comes increases in fuel and electricity so our inputs are rising faster than our income. Eskom is just smiling all the way to the bank,” he says.
“We are here and if I were not positive I would not plant any trees on the farm. Every business has cycles. Positive waves and negative waves and you can’t pull out when things look tough. Hang in there and do what you can do. My faith has brought me through this big time. I have faith in God and when we started here we started the business in faith and from the beginning, we’d come together and pray about it. We know that God makes a way where there seems to be no way. We don’t stand alone, even though sometimes, especially in the worst grief, it feels as if we do. So, the last two years within the family have been hard. I continue to feel the pain and loss as my sons do, and when I feel surrounded by darkness I know there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not a person who sits in a corner and feels sorry for himself. Like with farming, I can see the love and effort that Charmaine and I put into raising our three boys in faith as they grow and become men I can see that the love we have planted bears beautiful fruit.