Farm Operating System on an apple farm

How do you like them apples: Cultivating apples in the Highveld

Agrigistics’s customer base is expanding and with it, the type of produce being measured by our system. In today’s blog entry we focus on the production of apples by the JanVos Landgoed in Davel, Mpumalanga, and how the farming operations can be optimised by using Agrigistics.

The problems that farmers experience in running their farms as business enterprises are unique to the type of produce they deliver and the context in which the activities take place. Every time a new farmer signs up with Agrigistics, our customer success team is presented with a new set of variables. Therefore, the process of solving a problem and adding value always involves collecting as much data as possible to guide informed decision making. Part of this data collection involves visiting the farm and observing its operations. This provides us with a better understanding of the problem within its local context, how it can be solved and what value can be added. This is especially true in cases where a new type of produce, which is not common to a region, is introduced. An example of this includes apples, which are mainly produced in the Western Cape, but have been in production in the Highveld region for over two decades now.

Recently, we paid a visit to JanVos Landgoed in Davel, Mpumalanga. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Jan Grey – a towering figure with a warm smile – who invited us in for coffee. Instead of talking about business, the owner of JanVos Landgoed opted for current affairs and enthusiastically shared his vision for the future of the country and the role played by the youth in South Africa. It is for this reason, Grey added, that he took a keen interest in the Agrigistics journey. From our perspective, it is always uplifting to engage in a positive conversation about the future of our country and the enormous role that agriculture plays in it.

Owned and managed by Jan Grey, JanVos Landgoed runs a mixed farm in Davel, Mpumalanga, which Jan explained, is one of the most unique farming locations in South Africa: not because of its location to cultivate a specific crop, but rather its ability to accommodate a diversity of farming operations. Over the years, JanVos Landgoed has positioned itself as one of the top producers of maize and dairy in the Highveld – competing with top maize producers in Bothaville in the Free State while simultaneously competing with the best dairy herds of the Tsitstikama in the Eastern Cape.

Grey ascribes the farm’s success to at least two factors. Firstly, he closely monitors each step of the operations of both the maize and dairy farm, in the finest detail. Secondly, he ensures that he has the main cost components covered. Jan realises that by doing this, he can use the data he assembles in the process, to help him make informed decisions and improve profitability.

To address specific problem areas in his maize crops for example, Grey uses some of the most advanced equipment capable of dispensing pesticides and fertilisers. The same equipment also allows him to vary seed spacing with accuracy up to a millimetre. This reduces the pressure for nutrients, water and light; the three elements needed for optimal yields.

Grey furthermore fits each cow on his dairy farm with a smart ear tag. The ear tag provides the farmer with real-time insights into their fertility, health, nutrition and GPS location. It also informs Grey, for example, when a cow is in heat and ready for artificial insemination, or when a cow may be falling ill.

However, what makes JanVos Landgoed even more unique in the region is their decision to experiment with a produce that is not normally associated with the Highveld. South Africa’s apple producing areas are mainly located in the Western Cape (Groenland, Ceres, Villiersdorp) and Langkloof East in the Eastern Cape, where a less harsh climate supports the cultivation of this delicate product. The Western Cape province alone accounts for more than half of all the apples produced in South Africa. Yet, by taking specific measures to minimise the risk, JanVos Landgoed is one of a small number of farmers in the Highveld that produces varieties such as Royal Gala, Pink Lady and Granny Smith apples. Owing to the success thus far, this is the next product line on the farm Jan envisions to optimise, with the help of Agrigistics.

Preparing an apple orchard and nurturing the young trees is an extremely labour intensive process. Jan explained why it is so difficult by comparing these saplings to “Grade 11 boys that need to be kept in line to set them up for the rest of their lives; failure to do so has dire consequences”. Each tree needs proper trimming and the branches, separate manipulation, to ensure optimal production in the years to come.

It is during these initial preparation years that farming with apples in the Highveld poses a unique set of challenges compared to that of the Western Cape. One of the main differences between the two regions is that apples produced in the Highveld receive summer rainfall while apples produced in the Western Cape receive winter rainfall. In the Western Cape this means that the farmer can control each tree’s water supply during the summer months, which allows them to set the pace for the tree’s growth. In contrast, in the Highveld, large amounts of summer rainfall makes it difficult to manage the tree’s growth.

During the later phase of the trees’ life, when they are in full production, the next labour intensive process of harvesting starts. Harvesting requires at least three rounds of apple picking through each orchard to ensure that only the ripe fruits are harvested. In total, the process takes around two months to complete. Apart from the time spent by each labourer scouting each tree for the correct fruit, harvesting also entails a specific picking action. This involves a twisting action of the hand and wrist when picking the apples to prevent the branch from snapping, which might cause other fruit to fall to the ground and bruise.

The time spent in the orchard translates into massive labour costs, and is one of the main items affecting the profitability and sustainability of the enterprise.

To optimise the return on input of this product line, Jan contacted us for assistance. Agrigistics approaches optimisation of farming operations by identifying and understanding where the true problem areas lie. In the case of Jan’s apple orchards, we suggested attaching Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands to each employee, and scanning these using rugged devices. This will enable Jan to determine the input costs per orchard for example, by identifying the labour costs spent on preparing each tree, monitoring the chemicals and fertilisers applied to each orchard and diesel used for equipment. By comparing the total input costs with the measured production output, Jan can then identify the orchards that are underperforming, and where more time and money should be invested in the coming seasons.

We are looking forward to assisting Jan with his new venture and to optimise his apple farming operations. To many more delicious apples from the Highveld!

For more information please request a demo or give us a call on +(27)84 299 6791