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Up close and chicory

Written by  Marlene Bramley & Leoni Kok
| in Landbou
| April 7, 2016

It's probably safe to say that most of us have heard of chicory and associate it with coffee, but few of us know what chicory actually is. To find out we headed to the small Eastern Cape hamlet of Alexandria, where South Africa's only operative chicory factory is situated.

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Paul Griffiths is a Field Agriculturalist for Chicory SA (Pty) Ltd. The company owns the factory in Alexandria and also produces chicory in the area. Paul estimates that 30 years ago there were up to 200 chicory producers in the country. By a decade ago that number had dwindled to 50, and currently only about 20 chicory producers remain.

So, why the steady exodus of chicory farmers? "There are just so many reasons," says Paul, but the main ones tend to be supply and demand, and labour issues. Demand for local chicory was severely affected a few years ago when the main local buyers started importing cheap chicory from India.

"About two years ago wewere very overstocked and had to stop the producers from planting. We couldn't sell our product because we had to compete with the subsidised prices from India," says Paul. In order to save the industry, Chicory SA entered into negotiations with major customers and brokered agreements for the supplyof local chicory.

“Having a secure market and a predetermined price for your produce are two aspects that make chicory an attractive crop for farmers.”

Having a secure market and a predetermined price for your produce are two aspects that make chicory an attractive crop for farmers. With some protection for the local supply locked in, there has been an increase in production, but there is still a significant shortfall. "Ten years ago we were producing 45 thousand tons of chicory rootper year. Last year (2015/2016) we only produced 10 thousand tons, but estimate about 20 thousand tons for next season (2016/2017), so it is definitely picking up."

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Even with production doubling Paul adds there is no danger of oversupply. They would like to see production levels increasing to around 25 thousand tons per year.

Most local chicory producers deliver their entire harvest to Chicory SA on contract. The factory annually determines a producer price based on a number of factors, which include international chicory prices and input costs. They also guarantee to buy up the farmer's entire harvest.

The factory receives the wet root, where it is dried and then roasted. The final product is mainly sold on to food production companies like Nestlé and National Brands. It is primarily used as a blend in coffees, but it is also added to cereals and even consumed as a beverage on its own. It imparts a distinctive flavour to SA favourites like Ricoffy and Frisco.

Chicory SA also has its own brand of chicory teabags called Woody Cape Chicory. It's a hundred percent pure chicory and apparently is not as bitter as the root is purported to be. "I would offer you some chicory root to chew on, but I won't do that you," Paul laughs, and that is enough to convince us that raw chicory chewing is not for the faint hearted.

If you're curious to try the tea bags, look out for them in health shops and selected supermarkets. Chicory is naturally free of caffeine, so makes a great alternative if you've had one cup of Java too many.  

Chicory is also a source of probiotics and is used in a variety of animal feed. Probiotics has become a buzzword in the over-the-counter health industry, and these days you will find probiotics everywhere from supplements to yogurt, and even skincare products. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts believed to be beneficial in stimulating production of healthy gut bacteria. This keeps your digestive system running smoothly and is said to have overall health benefits.

“Common chicory (Cichorium intybus) is a native of the dandelion (daisy) family.”

But we still haven't answered our initial question, what is chicory exactly? Common chicory (Cichoriumintybus) is a native of the dandelion (daisy) family. It's a woody herbaceous perennial and with pretty bright blue flowers in the flowering stage. To see chicory fields in bloom in South Africa you would have to make your way to the Eastern Cape, the only province in the country where the crop is currently grown. Aside from Alexandria, chicory is also grown in the Fish River and Gamtoos areas.

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It's believed that chicory was cultivated as early as 5000 years ago by the Egyptians for medicinal purposes. Romans and Greeks used chicory as a vegetable and references to chicory are found in early writings of Horace, Virgil and Pliny – among others. The Cichorium genus also includes endives and radicchio.

Chicory grows in 7-8 month cycles, but only one harvest is planted per year. The reason being soil preparation. It takes up to four months. In dryland areas soil prep begins around Octoberand planting season starts in March. Paul says chicory is quite a hardy plant and doesn't need as much moisture as maize (one of the competing crops in the area). The chicory at Alexandria is grown under dryland conditions and even with last year's drought they had a good harvest.

"We planted before Christmas and the rain shut off," says Paul. "The leaf dies off, but the plant retains its energy in the root."

“The leaf dies off, but the plant retains its energy in the root.”

We start talking about conservation agriculture and where the industry stands. Paul explains that this is one of the reasons why it takes up to four months to prepare the chicory fields. "With chicory we have to rotate," says Paul - while we're driving through chicory fields fallowed for crop rotation. "Now they've planted them to Rhodes grass and they will stay like this for 4-5 years. The Rhodes grass gets cut and baled and it goes to the dairy farmers."

"We try not to plough when we prepare a field. We cultivate it, but we don't actually turn it over. We cultivate it till the dead organic matter gets back into the soil. It's this process that takes four months. So with this crop you've got to plan well ahead."

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Chicory is very susceptible to wind erosion, which further requires the planting of windbreaks. In this case Napier grass is planted between rows every 25 meters. The grass grows quickly and up to three meters tall, making it ideally suited to the task.

A few years ago the entire fertilizer programme for Chicory SA's crops was changed after soil tests revealed an over-application of phosphates. Paul says this really turned things around for their soil health. They have also stopped using insecticides altogether.

"Ten to fifteen years ago there used to be a rigid regime of insecticide spray. It got to a stage where the guys were spraying every three weeks, to try and kill insects"

So what neutralized the insect problem?

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"I think when we stopped spraying, the natural predators came back," is Paul's take on the matter.

They also recently dabbled in no-till for a season, but the practice was abandoned. "Because of the size of the seed, germination is a problem," says Paul.

Although there are ways to mechanise virtually the entire chicory cultivation process, in South Africa much of it is done by hand. "We have a huge unemployment problem in our area," explains Paul. So they prefer to create jobs in order to alleviate poverty in the local community.

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Another way Chicory SA assists the community is by working with emerging farmers, who were beneficiaries under the Government's land redistribution programme. They run five projects around the factory where they lease land from the emerging farmers.Chicory is grown on this leased land, where the farmers mostly graze cattle. Chicory SA manages the entire process from soil preparation to harvest and creates employment within those communities.

Growing chicory is quite labour intensive, and good labour management is important. The chicory is grown from seed, which resembles carrot seeds. The seeds are planted using precision planters. Hoeing is done by hand and harvesting is also a manual process, although a machine is used to lift the roots out of the soil. Once the roots are on the surface, they are picked up by hand.Paul estimates you'd need about one labourer per hectare of chicory for eight months of the year.

Thinking about planting chicory yet? With the current shortfall in local supply, now would definitely be a good time to enter the market. Once upon a time South Africa - after France - was considered one of the world's major chicory producers. It is not inconceivable that we could get there again.

So what kind of yield can you expect? Paul reckons dryland around 18 tons per hectare and irrigated between 35 to 40 tons. So while you consider the numbers, we'll be running to the shops to get ourselves acquainted with that Woody Cape Chicory.