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Bathurst - The centre of the universe

Written by  Marlene Bramley
| in Dorp
| March 2, 2016

The ten-hour journey to Bathurst from Cape Town is beautiful and scenic, but long. On arrival I sit back and enjoy a well-deserved beer at the Pig and Whistle Inn, or the Pig as locals refer to it.

The local butcher Tiaan is feeding most of the town tonight with a steak braai. You choose your cut of meat and he cooks it for you. The selection available is impressive and ranges from well matured, to freshly harvested beef. Since we are in beef country I place my order and find a corner where I can observe the locals and overhear the stories of their daily lives. Bathurst is no stranger to visitors. Port Alfred is about 20km’s away and Grahamstown 40km. The town is known for its eclectic shops and wide array of people who choose to live there.

I see a sign in the bar that says: “Bathurst, the centre of the universe,” and smile. I wonder if everybody in small villages all over South Africa thinks that of their hinterland. Later I am told the expression stems ffrom crossing the earth’s lay lines, “If you believe in that sort of thing.”

Kingston Farm, just outside Bathurst, plays host to my weeklong visit. It is the ideal setting to be taken into the heart of settlers’ country. The beautifully restored homestead dons paintings of hunting parties, dogs, good horsemanship and too many antiques to mention. A croquet set welcomes visitors at the front door.

“Since we are in beef country I place my order and find a corner where I can observe the locals and overhear the stories of their daily lives. Bathurst is no stranger to visitors.”

Fred and Carla Bright run a fine dining restaurant from here. I am surprised to find such refined, well crafted food and genteel hospitality in a town so off the beaten track.

After a good night’s sleep I make my way to the big pineapple, an ode to the biggest agricultural industry in the area. Folklore has it that a Mr. Charles Purdon, a Bathurst resident, went for a haircut in Grahamstown sometime in 1856. He returned with a pineapple top that came from Natal, planted it and the rest is history.

Pineapples are really big in the area

The big pineapple is also home to the Pineapple Growers Association where I speak with the secretary Lee Botha. She is a mine of information and tells me that Bathurst is the furthest south of any pineapple growing area in the world. There are two varieties of pineapples commercially grown in South Africa, the smooth leaf Cayenne and the Queen. The Cayenne is the largest crop and most suited for canning, because it bears a larger fruit with more juice. The Bathurst area specialises in Cayenne and delivers up to 135 tons annually to processing plants in East London. “Ninety percent of the crop is exported, while the rest is enjoyed locally,” says Lee. “The Sunshine Coast and particularly Bathurst provide the ideal warm and frost-free conditions to bring the pines to perfect ripeness. Very little rain is required which makes it ideal for hardy conditions.

“There are about 22 farmers in the Bathurst area who specialise in pineapples. Some diversify into beef like Craig Handley who runs a Bonsmara herd.” Lee points me in the direction of Mark Harris, the biggest grower in the area.

On my way to his farm, I drive past some pineapple fields and am amazed to see that pineapples do not grow on palms like coconuts and bananas do. They grow on the ground with the plant reaching about knee height. I know it sounds stupid, but I was really under the wrong impression. I know for a fact I am not the only one.

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Mark greets me with a smile and I say nothing about my misconception. One does not want to appear totally idiotic from the get go. He tells me about his upbringing in Welkom and how he came to be a farmer. “My father wanted me to be an accountant or something useful. When I told him I wanted to be a farmer he was quite surprised. I went to study agriculture , worked at Langeberg Co-op for a few years and then came to Bathurst where I bought a small farm, worked for and subsequently went into partnership with Colin Smithers. It was the best thing that could have happened as he mentored  and taught me a lot about farming in general. As we became more successful we bought more land. Today the farm has 650 hectares of established pineapple plantations producing on average 15 000 tons a year.”

Mark explains that the farm works on a rotation basis to ensure they have a crop year round. “In any year there are 130 hectares planted, 130 hectares resting, and 260 hectares harvested. Each established hectare produces an average of 21 tons per hectare per annum.”

He speaks about the size of modern commercial farms and how things have changed over the years. “With lower margins farmers are forced to increase the size of their farms to produce more. We find that there are fewer farmers in the market, but they have bigger farms. It is all about economies of scale that make economic sense.”

“It was the best thing that could have happened as he mentored  and taught me a lot about farming in general. ”

Pineapples are very hardy plants tolerant of low rainfall. Bathurst gets about 600-650mm of rain a year. The plant utilizes the mist in winter to supplement water supply. All of Mark’s orchards are run on dry land conditions with no irrigation. We talk about the use of fertilizers and other chemicals.

“Traditionally organophosphates were used for pest control purposes. We have been working with an entomologist who changed the way we use chemicals drastically. We tend to use less and less and there is a general move towards organic fertilizers and manure. We do spray crops with a ‘ripening agent’ to ensure that they ripen at the same time. Otherwise it is impossible to harvest and work with the plants. Pineapple farming is very labour intensive. All the picking and planting is done by hand. We employ 54 workers on a permanent basis and about 15 seasonal people. During the harvest we pick the tops, or crowns, of the plants. The tops are graded and selected for planting at the same time we harvest the fruit. We will replant about a quarter of the tops we pick after two to four weeks when they have dried out and callused. As long as you keep the tops off the ground they can last up to a couple of months.”

The pineapple grows on the central stem of the plant with only one fruit borne on each plant for the first crop.

Every plant produces suckers and these grow in a leaf axle off the parent stem.  These suckers subsequently produce a second (ratoon) crop of fruit.  The first and second crops normally constitute the commercial yield of a plant.

In South Africa, pineapples are ready for flower induction within 20 to 24 months of planting.  Summer fruit take about nine months to mature and winter fruit can take up to a month longer.  The first ratoon crop is usually harvested after a further 18 to 20 months and the two crop cycle can take up to five years. Land for pineapple farming is chosen on the basis of elevation, aspect, soil, and drainage.  The amount of fertilizer needed for maximum yield is determined by regular soil and leaf analysis.

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Good crop management aims to achieve maximum production of fruit per hectare in the shortest possible time without harming the environment.  The timing of the fruiting of the first crop is very important as it influences the sucker growth of the second crop.

“The pineapple grows on the central stem of the plant with only one fruit borne on each plant for the first crop.”

Mark takes me for a drive through his farm where I see some of the pines being sprayed to induce flowering. The farm is resting so to speak; within a couple of weeks they will be harvesting just in time for the agricultural show in Bathurst. The show has nothing to do with the harvest, other than exhibiting some of the strange pines that popped up during the harvest.

“During this period we do weed control and get all the maintenance work done on equipment until the end of February. There is always something happening on a farm,” Mark quips.

I leave with a renewed respect for the work it takes to grow the food we take so for granted.

The wild frontier

My next stop is at Sibuya, a game farm situated in the beautiful village of Kenton-On-Sea. Chris Owens, the head game ranger is my host for the day. As we make our way down to the river Chris explains that Sibuya means ‘come back soon’. I can understand why, because we will be navigating the game reserve on a boat. The scenic Kariega River estuary winds its way through heavily wooded thickets on steep slopes, before opening out onto wide, grassy flats and sandbanks just upstream of the river’s mouth into the Indian Ocean.

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“Sibiya means come back soon. I can understand why...”

You can see nearly 400 different species of birds along the river. The game reserve is also sanctuary to an abundance of wildlife from elephant to otters, and almost everything in between, including the Big Five.

“Sibuya covers more than 3000 hectares of varied terrain and vegetation. From the moderately open river plains, through the pristine Lower Albany thicket, there are also patches of Cape Fynbos and a windswept, grassy plateau favoured by many of the larger grazing animals,” explains Chris.

We talk about the management of different species over such a vast terrain.  “With some species it is impossible to calculate exactly how many animals there are in the reserve.  Impalas for instance, calf once a year. You can understand that it is humanly impossible to count every single impala on a 3000 hectare property. We do however know the numbers on things like lions and the bigger game. We use aerial equipment for counting and maintaining numbers. Over all we let nature take it’s course.

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“The jackal and caracal maintain the smaller antelope population. Lions are kept in a smaller camp of about 100 hectares to ensure that there are no problems with predation on neighbouring farms. We are slowly introducing them to the bigger reserve, but that is a process that takes time. The lions are fed with a catapult where we shoot the food into their camp. We do that because we do not want them to associate vehicles, or people, with food. It is best to keep everything as natural as possible, especially with later integration in mind.” I can’t get the image of flying meat out of my head after Chris tells me about it. Moving right along...

“Impalas for instance, calf once a year. You can understand that it is humanly impossible to count every single impala on a 3000 hectare property.”

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Sibuya maintains a minimal animal breeding population. Chris explains that it is the minimal amount of animals you need to keep the genetic pool of any species healthy. “Normally it is about 500 animals and up, but it depends on the specific species. Game counts are done and new animals are bought and introduced when necessary. We sometimes sell animals at auction when the pool gets too big. If we have to cull we will, but we generally try to avoid it.”

I am particularly interested in the re-establishment of natural fauna and flora in the areas that were previously under cattle or crops. “The impact of crop farming is the most difficult to counter. It takes much longer for land to recover to its natural state after crop farming. Cattle farms that have been incorporated into the reserve recover faster, but still take a very long time to grow back. Land that was previously used for dairy farming also takes quite a long time to recover. In some sense it aids the reserve to have open grass plains that was farmland previously. It makes it easier for the animals to move around,” says Chris.

The untouched forest in the reserve and most parts of the Eastern Cape is pretty impenetrable. Elephants are very important, because they create walkways that other animals can use. Without them it would be very difficult to get to the rest of the vegetation.

As we wind down our day we talk about the community around Sibuya and how they are involved. Chris tells me about educational projects where kids from local schools come out to help with river and beach cleanup days. “It is important that the community understand their role in sustaining a pristine environment. We have also not fenced off the river frontage of the reserve, because we want people to have access to the river and enjoy it with us.” I think about the flying meat for the lions and nod to myself that it really does make sense to keep them in a separate camp, especially if you are a fisherman.

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Tick resistant Bonsmara

Proudly South African, the Bonsmara breed with their signature red colour, needs no introduction in the Eastern Cape. This is an area where commercial beef farming is not without its many natural challenges, of which ticks are the most problematic.

I talk to Craig Handley, one of the biggest Bonsmara breeders in the area. He runs his herd on farms in the Bathurst district between Grahamstown and Port Alfred. The herd was registered in 1972 with the selection of 50 Simmental cross Bonsmara basic cows. The herd has been upgraded and now stands at 220 SP (Stud Book Proper) cows with a total herd of about 330 cattle.

“The herd was registered in 1972 with the selection of 50 Simmental cross Bonsmara basic cows. The herd has been upgraded and now stands at 220 SP...”

“Bonsmaras are particularly hardy animals,” says Craig. “They are able to adapt to their environment and maintain functional efficiency. They are also very fertile, that’s why they have become a very popular breed for commercial beef farming producers in the region. The biggest benefit of Bonsmaras is their ability to resist ticks. Breeders from all over the country acquire stock from the Eastern Cape, because if it can survive here, it can survive anywhere.”

He waxes lyrical about his prize bull E194-339 that has left his trademark on the herd. “It is a registered A1 bull and has been used for 21 South African breeders, as well as in embryo programmes in South America and Australia.”

The veldt around Bathurst is rugged valley bushveld. Open veldt consists of old pineapple land that has been re-established to Rhodes grass. Rainfall is irregular and varies between 450mm to 600 mm per annum, without there being any particular rainy season.

The herd is run across all areas of the farm that are not under pineapple production. They live off the natural veldt; in the event of drought they revert to browsing in the thick bush, or pineapple fields that are lying fallow. During summer the cattle are given phosphate licks and in winter protein licks. The licks are only provided when the herd graze in old pineapple fields or veldt camps, not when they are in the bushveld thicket camps.

We talk about some of the challenges of farming cattle in the Eastern Cape. “Heartwater, redwater, Asiatic redwater and gall sickness occur throughout the year. We maintain normal herd health practices that include annual vaccinations for botulism, black quarter and anthrax. The cattle are also plunge-dipped on a two week cycle throughout the year.”

As far as the breeding side of the herd is concerned, Craig puts heifers to the bull at 18 months, or when they attain a weight of 350kgs. “We don’t have many calving problems. When you have frequent calving problems you need to look at the management of the herd. Six weeks prior to calving we take heifers off any form of lush grass and move them into a camp where they eat a maintenance diet with no high protein. This helps to keep their weight constant before birth and to avoid problems.”

“We don’t have many calving problems. When you have frequent calving problems you need to look at the management of the herd.”

Craig is one of five breeders who for-med Frontier Bonsmaras. Frontier Bons-maras comprises breeders who combined their joint expertise to provide bulls from one central location in the tick-infested areas of the Eastern Cape.

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Two breeders who’ve been in the industry the longest are Peter Knott and the late Glynn Handley (Craig’s father) who sadly passed away in November 2012. Frontier Bonsmaras has a rich pool of breeder knowledge and they maintain very high standards. Justin Stirk of Goodwoods Bonsmara was presented with the South African Studbook Stud Breeder of the Year for all beef breeds in South Africa, in 2014.

Frontier Bonsmaras is committed to breeding superior adapted animals for the commercial and stud breeder. Their aim is to breed thick, medium framed fertile cattle that are well adapted to the harsh disease challenges of the Eastern Cape. Frontier bulls should thrive in any part of the country. They practice artificial insemination (AI) and make use of the best available genetics to continuously improve their herds. The combined number of females exceeds 700, and provides breeders with a wide pool of genetics.

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Frontier bulls and females can be found locally, in the Karoo, the extreme cold of the North Eastern Cape sourveld, to as far afield as the Free State and the stifling heat of the Lowveld. They have adapted well and are leaving an affordable footprint throughout our country.

Eco bamboo

Whilst visiting Mark Harris on his pineapple farm he takes me past a new bamboo project. He sold 500 hectares of his land to EcoPlanet Bamboo for the development of a bamboo plantation that focuses on providing a secure and certified source of fibre for timber manufacturing industries.

I  make contact with Troy Wiseman, CEO of EcoPlanet Bamboo, in the USA to find out more. “We have 72% of the farm under bamboo and the other 28% of the farm has been set aside for biodiversity and conservation purposes.

“We have 72% of the farm under bamboo and the other 28% of the farm has been set aside for biodiversity and conservation purposes.”

“Our first operations were based in Nicaragua where we planted from native bamboo seed. Due to a unique and complicated flowering regime, access to bamboo seed is rare. In 2011 we wanted to prove that we could utilize tissue culture plantlets at commercial scale. These are not genetically modified, but just plants that are grown from the cells of parent plants in a laboratory.

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Although there were, at that time, two companies producing such plantlets for timber bamboo, this transition from laboratory to large-scale field was something that no one had ever been successful in doing before.“We chose South Africa and the Eastern Cape for a number of reasons.

First the species we  plant, Bambusa balcooa, is naturalized in South Africa and occurs and thrives across the Eastern Cape. Secondly the Bathurst area meets our various stringent land selection criteria. We look at land that has been farmed for long periods of time under chemical systems. It is also important to us to provide work to communities that are underemployed.

“Under EcoPlanet Bamboo’s sustainable management regime, bamboo is a truly renewable fibre. EcoPlanet is the first commercial bamboo company globally to achieve Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. South Africa, through EcoPlanet, is one of only two countries on the planet, which has met this international forestry sustainability standard for commercial scale bamboo plantations.”

The clumping bamboo plants reach maturity within six to seven years of planting. A portion of each plant is harvested each year. This ensures that the harvesting is sustainable and that there will be a secure and long-term source of fibre.

dorp march 2016 bathurst 10Troy tells me about the laboratory on the farm and processing of bamboo after harvest. “Our farm has been designed as a full life-cycle system, in conjunction with onsite processing facilities, and a commercial scale R&D and testing laboratory. The raw bamboo will be processed on site, through an innovative and clean system, into activated carbon. This product will then be sold domestically into the South African market. Applications include water filtration systems for municipal, mining and household use. We aim to create a number of jobs, from completely unskilled labour, to graduate level professionals who will work in our laboratory. We also aim to provide the South African market with a product that is currently imported with long delivery times and poor quality control.”

“Applications include water filtration systems for municipal, mining and household use.”

If you would like to find out more about this alternative farming company go to www.ecoplanetbamboo.com/video

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One last call
I spent a week in Bathurst and am truly amazed at the diverse agriculture that thrives in such a seemingly hostile environment. Like the settlers of old, I make one last stop at the Pig. Lucille, the owner, greets me. She tells me of her comfortable life in Sandton and how they decided to exchange their busy city life for a rural existence, at the heart of the community: “The Pig, and Bathurst, is a truly amazing experience for me. It took quite a while to get used to such a small town, coming from a big city. But there is nothing in the world that I will exchange for it. The whole community is involved in everything, and we hear about it all at the Pig. Now it is truly the centre of my universe.”