Rising production costs and careful utilisation of water to prevent the deterioration of quality, are some of the major challenges facing the potato industry in Limpopo. Producers use the latest technology, modern cultivation methods, crop rotation and irrigation systems to increase production of this sought-after product.

Limpopo is the main potato production region producing approximately 50 million 10kg bags of potatoes on between 10 500 and 11 000ha, of which 31,7 million bags are offered on the country’s fresh produce markets.

From around September to the end of November, the region supplies most of the potatoes to the market with only a small contribution from other regions. An early planting from January to March mainly consists of the cultivars Mondial (44%), Valor (15%) and Sifra (14%). The main planting season is from April to August with the cultivars Mondial (60%), Valor (11%) and Sifra (8%). Ten more cultivars are planted in smaller volumes.

A good industry

Rudi Heinlein in one of his potato fields. He plants approximately 200ha potatoes under irrigation in the northern parts of Limpopo, where the major challenges are high input costs and the availability of water.

Rudi Heinlein, managing director of the Sirkel-N Estates, produces potatoes, onions and citrus. He is chairman of the Northern Region, member of the board and chairman of the marketing committee of Potatoes SA. He believes that things are going well for the region’s potato producers.

Dr André Jooste, CEO of Potatoes SA, says in the ten years up to 2015 more potatoes were gradually being planted in Limpopo and since then the number of hectares planted have moved mainly sideways. Yields gradually improved as a result of better cultivars, cultivation practices and more efficient plant pest control with a slight change in annual yield that can be attributed to climate (cold, frost damage etc.)

Rudi says the industry’s major challenge in Limpopo is the high input costs than can be as high as R220 000 per hectare. These costs are increasing faster than the inflation rate, making it very expensive to produce potatoes. Fertiliser, pest control, irrigation, transport to the market and the cost of seed usually form the major part of these costs.

Improved cultivation practices, more efficient irrigation and pest control are used by most farmers to counter the rising costs. The main soilborne diseases are a series of fungal diseases and the main insect pests are potato moth and leafminer.

Crop rotation is used to keep the cost of soilborne disease control at bay. Once a specific field has been cultivated, that field is withdrawn from the potato production cycle and either left fallow or utilised by planting rotational crops that can break disease cycles.

An integrated approach

Pests that occur during the growth season, are controlled preventatively through a fixed weekly spray programme, while some producers use a reconnaissance system to treat the diseases and pests as they become visible.

André says an integrated approach to crack down on soilborne diseases is vital. This should include field selection, soil preparation, planting time and a crop rotation system. Potatoes SA spends a lot of time generating knowledge through research to inform producers through regularly updated fact sheets about the management of plant pest control.

The latest publication relates to best practices in the potato industry and emphasises responsible use of crop protection products. This follows last year’s publication regarding best practices for the handling of potato seeds.

With regard to research, one of the main challenges is to keeping pests that occur in other parts of the world, at bay. Because there are a lot of pests that have not yet found their way here, farmers should realise that importing any plant material that is not subjected to phytosanitary measures, will pose a risk.

The water factor

Potatoes is one of the agricultural crops that effectively convert water into food for humans.

Rudi says the availablility of good quality water is another challenge that potato farmers in Limpopo face every day. The main production areas are Dendron and Vivo, but many farmers expanded to land or even moved and located their farming enterprises alongside rivers, because the water table became so low in many areas that pumping costs increased and water quality declined.

Farmers use chemicals and other purification techniques to reduce the salt levels in water from boreholes in which the water levels have decreased considerably, to be able to still use it successfully for irrigation. Water is used through scientific scheduling with weather stations to use the water optimally.

As water is a restriction, no real vertical expansion and planting of more hectares is possible. The average yield in Limpopo is around 46 tons per hectare, while the highest yields are as high as 70 to 80 tons per hectare. In his view the area can increase its potato production with the right production methods and improved cultivars without planting larger areas.

Mechanisation increasing

Potato producers in the province are increasingly mechanising. Whereas potato farming was previously a major job creator, there are currently farms on which the entire production process from plant to bag has been mechanised.

The planting process has become quite expensive and requires a substantial investment in special planters, lifters (which cost more than R2 million a piece for a top of the line product) and packaging equipment.

Potato production creates many jobs in the rural areas, but farmers are continuously mechanising due to the volatility of labour.

Producers also need enough land for effective crop rotation and to prevent potatoes from being planted in the same field in shorter periods that four to five years. Changing climate conditions and fluctuating prices also present fairly high risks.

Improved marketing

He adds that while producers are constantly trying to improve their production and productivity to manage the cost squeeze, Potatoes SA is involved in several projects to assist and support them in their endeavours.

Packaging is a crucial aspect, as the product not only has to be protected when transported over long distances – it must also contain information informing the consumer of what she is buying. A project was lauched in conjunction with the South African Bureau of Standards and manufacturers of packaging material, to ensure effective packaging.

Projects were also lauched to improve the infrastructure at the various national fresh produce markets to benefit the marketing of potatoes. A generic promotional campaign is aimed at improving the per capita consumption of potatoes to ensure a sustainable potato industry.

André believes that the industry can grow even more if producers constantly succeed in producing a product that meets consumer preferences and remains a product of choice. The modern trend of enjoying more meals away from home, also offers processors a special opportunity to develop instant dishes that can be marketed as carefree meals.

Seed exports to Africa

Rudi says producers in Limpopo benefit from the uniqueness of the region which allows them to almost exclusively supply the markets from September to November. Exports to African countries north of Limpopo probably also offer attractive opportunities, but current border control measures are proving to be a stumbling block.

There are, however, good opportunities to produce seed for these countries. Farmers who produce certified seed can supply these countries at the right time, from January to March. A major portion of the seed produced by Sirkel-N goes to Botswana, Zambia and countries further north. – Andries Gouws, FarmBiz

For more information, contact Dr André Jooste on 083 307 3703 or email ajooste@potatoes.co.za and Rudi Heinlein on 083 459 2821 or email jr@sirkel-n.co.za