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Many of SA’s prime apple trees originate in the Free State

The Western Cape might be the country’s biggest apple-producing region, but many of the trees come from far away. Gerrit Rautenbach visited the Caledon Valley Nursery near Ficksburg in the Eastern Free State to establish why.

Way back in 1989 when Chris Berend was studying horticulture at the then Cape Technikon, his head said to him he was a nurseryman. And, coming from the Ficksburg region in the Eastern Free State, he was logically thinking about cherry trees. Chris made his way to the Infruitec experimental farm at Ficksburg.

“It was on a very small scale then, but my mind said to me I was on the right track. There were also some peach trees then, but let it be known, almost no apples. However, albeit small, apple farming in the Free State started taking shape shortly after that in 1991. That’s when I quit my job at Infruitec’s experimental farm.”

Like any true entrepreneur Chris’s thinking was that there were already quite some cherry tree nurseries, but no apple nurseries. The apple pioneers of the ’90s had to get all their young trees from far-away nurseries. An opportunity was knocking, and although Chris might have been thinking only about supplying trees for the new generation of local apple farmers, he was about to create a sort of revolution. However, not to totally rely on something as unknown then as apple trees, he also, at first, included cherry, peach and even some plum trees in his newfound nursery.

Over the years the focus shifted and today Caledon Valley Nursery is concentrating solely on apple trees and is supplying to a huge section of the traditional apple producing areas including the Free State, Langkloof, EGVV, and also the Ceres area. “You see, farmers are looking for tall trees, hardened trees, and that is exactly what we supply. And we are only into nursery trees. We are looking at getting involved in a BEE project, helping to set up orchards for emerging farmers, but only as facilitators and initiators. We are a nursery and only a nursery, focusing on what we know. We do trees, not apples,” Chris adds.

The trees are grown on rootstocks, both own-grown rooted liners and tissue cultured rootstock plants, and are well hardened off as the Eastern Free State has an early winter. Trees at Caledon Valley Nursery enter dormancy earlier as a result of cold temperatures in April and May.

At present Caledon Valley Nursery is growing more than 500 000 trees per season. When they’re ready, they have to lift them in the space of six weeks and deliver them in about four weeks. In other words, 10 weeks to add a half million trees to the apple industry. Ten weeks of make or break for Chris and his team. Trees are transported to their destination in lots of between 6 000 and 10 000 in a cold truck with the utmost attention on keeping the roots moist.

“Tall trees is what it’s all about. Two metres at least, that’s where we’re at. To get there we make use of ridges, good soil prep, we use drip irrigation with a weed mat above the drip lines on the ridges which control moisture loss but more importantly, it keeps weeds under control; it’s a good barrier on the soil. However, the most important factor for tall trees is the hail nets we have to have. Apart from keeping the hail at bay, they create a favourable climate for the trees to grow tall.”

One of the advantages of agriculture in the Free State is the availability of land. So one would immediately think that Chris and his team would want to up the ante from 500 000 trees to a million. Why not?

“We’d rather double our efforts to improve the 500 000. To produce them, about 18 ha is needed. Of course, that is multiplied by two as it is a two-year cycle. But to avoid apple replant disease, we use a new block of 18 ha every year. Once a block has produced its trees, we move away from it. Always.”

But what happens to every year’s apple-used soil?

“It’s a great opportunity to help communities to prosper. We love the nursery thing. It is working for us but probably behind all that, it is giving us the means towards developing and putting back into our community. This is a company not only designed to produce hundreds of thousands of apple trees every year, it is a company dedicated to helping its fragile community. That’s why we are helping them with vegetable farming and a peach orchard coming up. Once our apple trees are standing tall, the 18 ha of soil it was created on is only barred from producing more apple trees. It is not second-rated for anything else.”

Every year Chris Berend and his team endow SA’s apple industry with 500 000 new trees. And every year they improve the lives of their community. Two sides to a very valuable coin …


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