At the crack of dawn, the cock crows. I look at my watch and it is 6 AM precisely. We are staying on a citrus farm in the Gamtoos Valley in the Eastern Cape.
Outside in the rain the ducks and Egyptian geese are gliding around in the pond. All around the farm are rows and rows of citrus fruit trees including Satsuma (easy-peelers), Midnight and Naval orange trees. The long rows of trees stretch up the hillside, dark green with with clumps of orange fruit.
Not everybody would like the quietness of farming life but if you have lived as long as I have in cities you enjoy the intense greenery and stillness of the morning.
The town that we are staying at in the Gamtoos Valley is called Patensie in the heart of these citrus farming community. The name Patensie has a local origin and means “where the cattle lie”. Thomas and Edith Bean planted the first citrus seed in 1885 on the farm Ferndale just outside Patensie in the Gamtoos Valley. Farmers became interested in citrus and soon the Bean nursery was selling hundreds of small trees to the surrounding farmers. The first 139 wooden cases of oranges were transported by Thomas Bean and his sons by ox wagon to the Loerie station in 1908, from where it was exported to England.
Today citrus farming is a thriving industry in this valley with its ideal climate, soil conditions, natural protection from the elements, and abundant supply of water from the Koega Damn and microclimates on the slopes of the valley which enable the cultivation of a wide range of superior citrus cultivars. The climate allows for a long picking and marketing season where some of the finest eating oranges are produced in the world.
Yet when we speak to one of the local farmers at dinner in the evening over some home-made soup and red wine, we learn that citrus farming has become extremely scientific and is a difficult business. The farmer tells us that her biggest challenges are the weather conditions, protecting the citrus trees from various diseases resulting from fungus, insects and viruses as well as meeting international standards and the costs of fuel and labour.
The thing is that the top markets in Europe such as the UK and Holland demand the very best. Citrus fruit has to be virtually perfect – free from any blemishes that might occur because of weather conditions or when picking the fruit. Export agents who sell to be markets in Europe will instantly reject citrus that doesn’t meet these exacting standards. The best farms also need to adhere to the international quality standards from Europe that involves checking everything from growing methods to farm working conditions.
With citrus being such delicate fruit constant attention needs to be given to the citrus gardens (the citrus orchards are known as citrus gardens). Fruit needs to be picked under the right conditions – it has to be cold and dry as well. Branches need to be carefully manicured so that when even the slightest wind comes up, there is no chafing of the citrus fruits.
Every business has its own challenges and so it is with citrus farming which requires domain expertise and modern scientific agricultural practices. Yes, the citrus farmed here can reach attractive prices on the international market but unless you are able to mitigate and manage risks your business could turn from citrus heaven into citrus hell.
We leave the citrus farm with a sweet taste of Satsuma easy-peeler oranges that are delicate and delicious. Like all other businesses knowing exactly what you are doing and total dedication are really the only guarantees for sweet success.