Journalists and other role-players recently visited Pieter Graaff, the Agricultural Writers’ 2018 farmer of the year, and toured his farms in the Ceres region of the Western Cape.

Pieter Graaff

Profit is what makes business sustainable and is the obvious goal of any successful farming enterprise,” Graaff says during a visit to his farm Die Eike, situated in the Western Cape’s Ceres Valley. “Cash flow is critical and too many farmers are overgeared, which is not good business.” Graaff, who started farming in his early twenties, is now the single, largest individual apple producer in South Africa.

Off a base of 220ha of orchards, using business-generated profit and keeping the gearing low, Graaff expanded regionally, acquiring and developing properties at varying altitudes in different climatic zones. His operation, Witzenberg Properties, now consists of six farming units, all within 25km of the head office in Ceres. The farms operate independently while enjoying the benefits of scale.

While 60% of farm income is derived from apples and pears from 1 200ha of orchards, the business has a robust element of diversity with 300ha of timber, a sawmill, 25ha of wine grapes, 1 000ha of grain, 150 Angus stud cattle, 40 to 100ha of onions, 1 000 Merino ewes and a thoroughbred horse stud with 62 broodmares and two stallions.

A price maker
It is often said that farmers are doomed to remain price takers, with farm product prices dictated by the markets, or by buyers, processors, exporters and large supermarket groups. They are generally not part of that key component of profit that is to be found in the value chain after the product has left the farm. Graaff has laid claim to this value chain to a remarkable degree, and therefore equally so to the profits.

The fruit from the Witzenberg orchards goes to the Ceres Fruit Growers (CFG) packhouse, a farmer-owned facility in Ceres which runs along the lines of a farmers co-op. “Once the infrastructure has been maintained and salaries have been paid, the profit goes to the farmers,” says Francois Malan, managing director of CFG, who oversees the handling of 120 000 tons of fruit a year.

Two-a-Day, the fruit packers from Elgin, another farmer-owned packhouse, and CFG jointly own the marketing and distribution company Tru- Cape, the largest marketer of apples and pears for export in South Africa. Witzenberg fruit bins, manufactured at the Witzenberg timber mill, are used to carry fruit from the orchards to the packhouse.

“Our aim is to extract maximum value for our product from the market,” says Graaff. Keeping a hand on the value chain rudder like this gives him a competitive edge that could find Witzenberg fruit in Johannesburg on offer for less than the Johannesburg market prices.

There are benefits for smaller growers who want to piggyback off the economies of scale offered by CFG and Tru-Cape. This model offers clear advantages to farmers in the unfortunate (but not unlikely) event that they have crop production problems; their continuity of supply is assured and there is no loss of market share.

Job creation
Graaff’s focus on profit in no way detracts from his humanity, his awareness of the surrounding communities or his sense of social responsibility. “It is our responsibility to create jobs,” he says, “for without jobs, people are stripped of their dignity. And where there is no dignity, there is anarchy.” Witzenberg Properties employs 1 000 permanent staff; a number that may rise to 1 700 during the season, according to Witzenberg Properties’ chief financial officer, Nico Verhoef.

Pieter Graaff is a serious man, intent on his purpose. He is serious about doing his job properly and serious about taking responsibility for the life he leads. “I put everything back into my business,” he says, as he makes a call for others to invest. “We’ve got to invest to create the confidence and the environment we need in our country.”

He speaks perhaps of a range of investments, across a spectrum that embraces detail and concept, people and place, time and money, present and future. – Nan Smith, AgriOrbit

Cherries are a tricky crop according to Pieter Graaff, who grows them in the Koue Bokkeveld area of the Western Cape. A cherry enterprise has high infrastructure commitments requiring significant capital investment, and this dedicated packhouse on Graaff’s farm Esperanto is only busy for six weeks a year. For this kind of investment, the returns must be good – and at R120/kg for cherries sold on the local market, they are.
Export standards for cherries are extremely high, demanding that the fruit is without external or internal defect. This camera system, with twelve cameras, photographs the exterior and interior of the cherry, making it possible to select fruit that meets the required standards.
Fruit bins, used to transport fruit from the orchard to the packhouse, come off the line at the timber mill at Esperanto farm in the Koue Bokkeveld. The timber comes from Witzenberg Properties’ pine plantations and from plantations on other farms, and the bins are available to local growers.
Royal Beaut apples on the production line at the Ceres Fruit Growers packhouse signal apple harvesting time in the Ceres Valley.
New varieties are brought in by the agent, Top Fruit. These Jazz apples are ready for harvest.
Drip line irrigation supplies water to the trees in a precise and targeted way, making tight management of the water resource possible.
Trees are trellised to control growth and increase the fruit bearing area.
Marketing specialist Brian Berkman (left) of Tru-Cape, and journalist Jan Bezuidenhout, enjoy a quiet moment under the trees at Die Eike, where Pieter Graaff started farming in 1984.
Pieter and Yolanda Graaff entertained visitors in a converted dairy post-feeder at their farm Die Eike. The farm was purchased by Graaff’s father, world-renowned economist Dr Jannie Graaff, in the 1950s.
The Royal Gala apple (right) is a colour variant of the Gala apple (left). Gala originally came from New Zealand, but is now grown in South Africa, South America, North America, Europe and the UK.
Royal Beaut (left) is a South African variety, bred by Ceres grower Robert Zulch, from a superior mutation of Royal Gala that Zulch found on his farm in the Witzenberg Valley. Big Bucks (right) is a recently released variety, discovered by varietal expert Buks Nel in 2011. Big Bucks has the advantage of being an early ripening apple.
Journalists and other role-players recently visited Pieter Graaff, the Agricultural Writers’ 2018 farmer of the year, and toured his farms in the Ceres region of the Western Cape.
Important role-players in the breeding and distribution of new apple cultivars are, from the left, Peter Allderman of Top Fruit, De Kock Hamman of CFG, and Buks Nel of Tru-Cape.
Previous recipients of the Agricultural Writers’ farmer of the year award are, from the left, Gys du Toit of the Dutoit Group; Louis de Kock of Wildeklawer; Pieter du Toit of the Dutoit Group; Lourens Jonker of Weltevrede; Bernard du Toit of Langrivier Farm; Pieter Graaff of Witzenberg Properties; Rossouw Cillié of Laastedrif Farming; Robert Zulch of Wakkerstroom Farming; Charles Rossouw of Roslé Farms; Dr André Ernst of Allesbeste Farming; Hennie Retief of Van Loveren; Zander and Edrean Ernst, both of Allesbeste Farming.