What it takes to grow the best apples in the Ceres Valley

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According to Robert Zulch and his son, Fourie, in order to be the best apple grower on their farm Wakkerstroom in Ceres’ Witzenberg Valley, one must produce the kind of fruit the market wants, of the best quality and the right size.

In November 2020, Wakkerstroom was awarded several trophies by Ceres Fruit Growers (CFG), an owner of Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, for its success with particular varieties. It also won the CFG Chairman’s Award for the highest number of total points. By this measure alone, Wakkerstroom is producing some of the best fruit in the Ceres Valley. Click here to listen to a radio interview on RSG Landbou about their awards.

Size matters

“We all know the Top Red variety as it is on the shelves of every supermarket in South Africa. We mainly grow Top Red for the local market. Our entire focus is to maintain the tree, which is why thinning and pruning are aimed at the next three to five seasons, and not only for the next season. We aim for full red in counts that are often used in bag programmes,” Fourie explains.

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Some of the top apple producers in the Ceres Valley. From left are Robert and Fourie Zulch of Wakkerstroom Farm in Ceres.

The fruit count, the way the apple and pear industry categorises fruit by size, is the number of the size that will fit in a standard carton. Therefore, a count of 180 means there will be 180 pieces of fruit in the carton. The smaller the number, the larger the fruit.

“For Golden Delicious and Kanzi, the bigger the better, but with Top Red, also known as Early Red One, we aim for smaller,” he says. Wakkerstroom won the CFG award for producing the best Early Red One.

“For each variety we try to maintain the optimal fruit mass for the size count we want,” Fourie says. “We can’t be those people out there hunting for tons. We want to grow the optimal Class One fruit. We don’t load the tree, so we achieve the right quality and the right size. It is all about balance.

“We try to take out marginal fruit during thinning, and we are very strict on our pickers and sorters not to bruise fruit while sorting,” he adds. According to him, Wakkerstroom has made use of the services of nearly the same team of seasonal workers every year and “we aim to employ them full time”.

“It means a lot to us to have a team of employees who understand us and appreciate what we are trying to achieve. Our pickers remove hail- or sun-damaged fruit as soon as they see it and this goes directly to the juice plant, reducing the risk of bruising the quality products in the CFG bin,” he says.

Kanzi and Mahana Red earn awards

Wakkerstroom also received an award for producing the best Kanzi apples. “The aim is for the maximin Class One tonnage from the start and everything is handled that way. As Kanzi has a short stem, we try to thin to singles per bunch, which gives better sun coverage for the bi-coloured fruit and less chance of stem-end punctures,” he says.

Watch an interview with Fourie Zulch on Plaas TV below:

Although Wakkerstroom also won a trophy for the best Mahana Red, Fourie says it is an easy apple to grow. “We just plant Mahana Red and forget about it. However, we struggle to get the right size we want, though they tend to grow big. We want the fruit to be around 59mm in size.

“Our Mahana Red trees are approximately 13 years old – a bit younger than the norm. We are loading the trees to produce approximately 110 to 120 tons a year to get the right size of Mahana Red. It is a challenge for some staff to understand that for Mahana Red, we want small-sized apples, whereas for most of the others the axion ‘big is best’ rings true.”

Rosy Glow replacing Cripps Pink apples

Fourie explains that Rosy Glow is the variety that is replacing the older Cripps Pink to produce the Pink Lady® apple. Wakkerstroom won the trophy for producing the better Rosy Glow apples in the region.

“We had old Cripps Pink that coloured poorly. However since we started growing Rosy Glow we have found that the site in the valley suits this variety well. We are producing approximately 100 tons every year with a large packout of Pink Lady®.”

Looking at the series of awards that cover both apple and pear varieties, Wakkerstroom’s success lies mainly in growing apples. “When I came to the farm in 2007, we had 100ha of fruit and it was split 40% pears and 60% apples. Now the spread is 91% apples.

“And over the next three years we are taking out even more pears and only keeping Abate Fetel, Forelle and Packham’s Triumph,” he adds.

Becoming tech-savvy

Every grower wants to be known for having the highest income per hectare. In 2020, the award for the highest income per hectare of apples went to Wakkerstroom. “I think our staff play an important role here and we have performance bonuses in place. Our secret is not a secret at all. We focus on growing Class One fruit.”

Recent investments include drone technology from Aerobotics to map the farm, and using software that highlights stressed spots because of dryness, insects such as red-spider mite, or areas that need fertigation, and they are using probes to accurately measure soil moisture and transpiration.

“By 2024, 80% of the farm will be orchards younger than 18 years. We are replacing marginal orchards with varieties that produce better colour and quality. For example, we are replacing Braeburn with Mahana Reds,” Fourie ends.

Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing’s managing director, Roelf Pienaar, says Wakkerstroom should be congratulated on this success. “But more important than these recent awards, is the deep and long relationship that Tru-Cape has with the Zulch family. We co-own the rights to the Fuji Royal variety with Robert Zulch,” he ends. – Press release, Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing