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Western Cape food security, jobs at risk if rains don't come soon

Ceres Witlof grower Fanie van der Merwe describes the drought in the Op-Die-Berg area of the Koue Bokkeveld region of the Western Cape farming area, as the worst in a hundred years. While Witlof is grown hydroponically with the circulated water using less than a few average householders' consumption, the problem is when it comes to irrigating vegetable crops, for which Bronaar Farm is well known, and apple and pear trees.
Fanie van der Merwe
Fanie van der Merwe

Jobs at risk

“Apples and pears are long-term crops”, he says, explaining: “It takes about seven years from planting a tree to its first harvest so we have to take a long-term view. If we don’t get good rains soon, and I mean more than 15 centimetres of rain at a time, the seasonal jobs of 1,500 people in our area alone are at risk as there won’t be fruit on the trees to pick.” If rain doesn’t come soon, in the next eight weeks or so, Van der Merwe may have to remove the fruit buds from marginal orchards as there won’t be water to irrigate trees.

“Two years ago we already improved our irrigation and moisture measuring technology so we are being as efficient as we possibly can be. Typical annual rainfall in our area is about 650mm but so far we have only had 180mm.”

Food security at risk

According to Van der Merwe, food security in the Western Cape may soon be at risk and where fruit, vegetables and even meat are available they will be considerably more costly. “The last really dry period was in 2003/2004 but this is far worse”, he says. “We are people of faith and pray that God will provide rain but we must also apply our logic that the situation is very serious and in the next few weeks growers will have to make hard decisions about which crops to grub and which to irrigate.”

Witlof production

Bronaar’s Witlof crop is largely immune from the vagaries of climate as the roots are forced indoors but, as Van der Merwe explains, the hail experienced in June decimated the Witlof roots which are grown in the fields.

Image Supplied
Image Supplied

“Witlof or Belgian Endive is grown in a two-stage process. The chicory root is grown in the earth and then, after harvest, has to be frozen before the root can be forced to produce a chicon which blossoms into the creamy white Witlof we recognise. The latter process happens in a nutrient-rich water solution and entirely in the dark which means that photosynthesis that typically makes green vegetables green doesn’t occur. From a nutritional point of view this means that there is very little starch and, consequently, carbohydrate in the Witlof and it is also among the highest natural sources of the valuable B-vitamin, folate. Typically the Witlof root gets used as livestock feed after being forced but more recently scientists are developing inulin for medicinal purposes and the food services industry from the root,” he ends.

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