Born and bred Sandvelder Henk van Zyl was recently named the 2011 Potato Farmer of the Year. He farms in Leipoldtville and says that despite the sandy soils and a high salt content in the water, he wouldn’t farm anywhere else. Denene Erasmus visited him.
The Sandveld region on the West Coast is still one of the country’s most remote, sparsely populated and rugged areas.
Known for its magnificent wild flowers in spring, its fynbos and impressive birdlife, the area has also become synonymous with potato production.
Potatoes have been grown in the Sandveld on a small scale for many decades but it wasn’t until 1981, when the area finally got electricity, that large-scale irrigation became possible, and the production boom took place.
Now potato production is the core economic activity and the main employer in the Sandveld, and in many places the landscape is dotted with large centre pivot lands.
This area is home to the 2011 Potato Farmer of the Year, Henk van Zyl (35) who farms near the small town of Leipoldtville. Here, together with his family, he runs JH van Zyl Boerdery on the family farm Spioenkop and more rented land.
“High input costs and challenging conditions make running a viable business difficult, but I wouldn’t want to farm anywhere else,” says Henk.
The Sandveld is notorious among potato farmers for its white, sandy and acidic soil.
This makes proper irrigation very challenging and because the water tends to have a high salt content, potato farmers regularly have to flush out salt via a centrepivot irrigation system to avoid the build-up of salt in the soil.
An expensive fertilisation programme contributes to good yields. “Because of the soil and water quality, the yield per hectare here is probably 10t/ha less than in other production areas,” says Henk.
“We produce roughly 4 500t to 5 000t potatoes annually on about 150ha. I am a seed potato grower and aim to achieve seed potato certification for at least 30% of the total crop. The rest of the potatoes are sold as table and processing potatoes,” he says.
Roughly 10% of his potatoes are exported to Africa, mainly Angola and Namibia, 15% goes to local fresh produce markets, 20% is sold to the processing sector, and Henk sells 25% of his crop to retailers.
“Even with the challenging conditions, we produce a high quality product. We can produce potatoes throughout the year which means a constant cash flow and we get maximum use of our machinery and pack houses. We are also relatively close to the market and are blessed with a peaceful lifestyle in one of the most untouched natural landscapes in the country,” he explains.
“One of the good things about our sandy soil is that you never run the risk of over-irrigating or having waterlogged lands. But, because the soil has poor water retention, we use a lot of water. We use a centre-pivot irrigation system controlled via cellphones. In summer we irrigate roughly 60mm to 70mm/ha per week and in winter, depending in rainfall, about 40mm to 50mm/ha per week,” says Henk.
Soil moisture probes don’t work in this sandy soil. Instead, farmers rely on trusted methods of rain meters and digging holes in the soil to enable schedule irrigation.
During production, flushing with 15mm to 20mm of water per hectare has to be done once a week to wash salt build-up out of the soil.
To avoid build-up of soil-borne diseases, Henk follows a crop rotation cycle with a cover crop (oats or babala) planted every four years to prevent soil erosion, help suppress weeds and help improve soil health.
“I had a mechanism installed on the mechanical harvester that enables us to harvest potatoes and plant the seed for the cover crop in one go. Not only does this save fuel costs, it also helps to keep soil compaction, caused by heavy machinery, to a minimum which is in line with my minimum tillage philosophy,” he says.
For the cover crop, Henk sows babala in summer and oats in winter. Potatoes are planted directly into the cover crop stubble.
During this time, Henk plants a few plots of potatoes on his uncle’s neighbouring farm and in exchange his uncle’s sheep graze on cover crop lands.
Fertiliser and chemical control
“I have a heavy fertilisation programme and many farmers will probably not believe what they see here,” says Henk.
“The fertilisation programme differs for the different potato varieties that we plant (mainly BP 1, Valor, Harmony and Hermes varieties), but I will give a general overview.
“At planting we apply about 3t gypsum/ha. After planting, granular and liquid fertiliser is applied weekly. The liquid fertiliser is applied via the irrigation system.
“Over the potato growth cycle we apply calcium, using about 400l of liquid calcium nitrate/ha. “We also apply 280kg to 300kg nitrogen/ha, 160kg to 170kg phosphorus/ha, and 450kg to 550kg potassium/ha,” he explains. “We spray broad spectrum herbicides on a preventative basis.”
The main problem weeds in this area are ramnas, couch grass, tumbleweed and sedges. Henk mainly uses Alachlor as preemergence herbicide and at 5% emergence he sprays with Paraquat.
The most problematic pest in this region is the potato leaf miner, which is controlled chemically by spraying Abamectin, Suntap or Patron.
“We spray for potato leaf miner throughout the season because it can be a big problem,” adds Henk. “We spray Infinito on a systemic basis for late blight, fungicides to control fungal diseases, and we spray for bollworm when necessary,” he says.
The family man
Henk attributes his success to the support of his family. He is proud to admit that he is really ruled by the women (wife, mother and two daughters) in his life.
“My wife Helisna,handles the finances and administration on the farm and, thanks to her expertise in this area, things run smoothly most of the time.
“My mother, Martie, handles the warehouse, assisted by Helisna. I admire the co-operation between them and appreciate their contribution in making this business a success,” he says.
(Source – http://www.farmersweekly.co.za/article.aspx?id=10842&h=Top-potato-farmer-shares-his-tips-for-success)