South African Producers Share Realities of Harvesting During Lockdown

Even with ongoing water shortages and the challenge of working during a lockdown, growers anticipate a good harvest.
Capetown
Jun. 18, 2020
Lisa Anderson

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Since agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties were clas­si­fied as an essen­tial ser­vice when South Africa went into lock­down on March 27 due to COVID-19, the coun­try’s olive grow­ers were allowed to con­tinue har­vest­ing unhin­dered to a large extent.

The effec­tive shut­down of the food­ser­vice indus­try dried up our sales com­pletely and cre­ates uncer­tainty for sales vol­umes going for­ward.- Brenda Wilkinson, Rio Largo Estate

The lock­down period that was ini­tially sup­posed to last for three weeks, was then extended for another two, and then indef­i­nitely, with restric­tions relaxed incre­men­tally since the start of May.

With the new reg­u­la­tions, this year’s olive har­vest — which started in late-February — has been unlike any before.

Producers reported that the reg­u­la­tions resulted in fewer work­ers, uncom­fort­able per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE), addi­tional costs relat­ing to the pur­chases of new reg­u­la­tory equip­ment and sup­plies, and a smaller mar­ket for their prod­uct due to restau­rant clo­sures.

Even with these com­pli­ca­tions, some grow­ers have reported increases in yield from last year.

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Nick Wilkinson, chair­man of SA Olive, said some of the coun­try’s pro­duc­ers were still busy har­vest­ing, with most expected to fin­ish at the end of June or early-July, and some at the start of August.

Wilkinson told Olive Oil Times South Africa’s yield will cer­tainly be up on last year — prob­a­bly 40 per­cent — but it was still too early to make an exact call.”

See Also: The Best South African Olive Oils

Farmers have gen­er­ally restricted work­force num­bers,” he said, and tried to main­tain phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing as well as keep work­ers iso­lated on farms with lim­ited vis­its to town for food.” (South Africans were only allowed to leave their homes to per­form essen­tial work and to buy nec­es­sary sup­plies dur­ing the first five weeks of the lock­down.)

Other than the bur­den of extra paper­work to allow for staff move­ment, and the sup­ply of pro­tec­tive gear and san­i­tiz­ers along with aware­ness pro­grams for work­ers,” Wilkinson said, it has been busi­ness as usual with the excep­tion of the more east­ern areas in the drier parts of the Western Cape still strug­gling with ongo­ing water restric­tions and drought.”

Goedgedacht, which is sit­u­ated on the slopes of Kasteelberg near Riebeek-Kasteel north of Cape Town started, har­vest­ing in March and is still in the process.

The man­ag­ing direc­tor of Goedgedacht, Rob Templeton, told Olive Oil Times hav­ing their work­ers har­vest with masks and main­tain phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing has been tough.”

Trying to breathe through a mask when you have been work­ing phys­i­cally is a chal­lenge,” he pointed out.

Templeton also high­lighted the addi­tional costs asso­ci­ated with Goedgedacht imple­ment­ing addi­tional san­i­ta­tion mea­sures, and pur­chas­ing per­spex screens, reg­u­la­tory PPE and floor-mounted san­i­ta­tion sta­tions.

He said Goedgedacht has had chal­lenges with water as well.

Our dams had just enough water to get our fruit to full mat­u­ra­tion,” he said, but because of the lack of water at the start of the har­vest, we found that the trees were stressed and the fruit ripened quickly but was not ready for har­vest­ing.”

But Templeton said that thus far their yield has increased by 30 per­cent from last year, which he ascribed to the addi­tion of a new farm man­ager.

He said as Goedgedacht only has 37 hectares of olives, they also buy fruit from other South African grow­ers. Other farms who deliver have sup­plied us with world-class fruit and we have made some excep­tional oils this year,” he said.

Marbrin Olive Farm in the Breede River Valley near Robertson started har­vest­ing late-February and fin­ished last week.

The biggest prob­lem was trans­port, bring­ing the peo­ple in and hav­ing to pay for two trips due to the leg­is­la­tion,” Marbrin mar­ket­ing man­ager Briony Coetsee told Olive Oil Times. Because of this we ended up with a smaller team and fewer peo­ple got work.”

Despite these obsta­cles, Coetsee reported an increase of pretty much dou­ble ton­nage of last year,” when they had no rain­fall, but said they are still not achiev­ing the yield they should.

She called the 2019 har­vest an awful crop” when frost dur­ing the crit­i­cal blos­som­ing time killed off a large por­tion” of their blos­soms.

Marbrin’s recov­ery was bedev­iled, though, when the sale of their olives to their largest buyer fell through. They made the best of the sit­u­a­tion by using the addi­tional fruit for their own pro­duc­tion in the end.

Rio Largo, in the Scherpenheuwel val­ley between Worcester and Robertson, started har­vest­ing at the begin­ning of March and is busy wrap­ping up.

Once again we have had a smaller har­vest than we would have liked,” Brenda Wilkinson, who co-owns the estate with her hus­band Nick, said. But the actual pro­duc­tion went very smoothly.”

I think the uncer­tainty of each week took its toll on all of us,” she told Olive Oil Times. Troubled times and so much uncer­tainty.”

The effec­tive shut­down of the food­ser­vice indus­try dried up our sales com­pletely,” Wilkinson said, and cre­ates uncer­tainty for sales vol­umes going for­ward.”

The coun­try’s restau­rants were forced to close their doors from March 27 and have only recently been allowed to re-open grad­u­ally for take­away only.

Many restau­rants — espe­cially upmar­ket venues — can’t afford to re-open because to-go orders alone can’t pay their rent, and some will have to close down per­ma­nently.

Wilkinson said they lim­ited the num­ber of work­ers employed dur­ing har­vest, encour­ag­ing those liv­ing on the estate already to work with them.

It was dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend at first as no one around them was ill,” Wilkinson said of the work­ers.

Wilkinson said the weather was on their side, and they har­vested under sunny skies with high day­time tem­per­a­tures and no wind.

They (the work­ers) could all get on with the pick­ing and farm activ­i­ties with­out try­ing to con­gre­gate around fires to keep them warm in the early morn­ings as before,” she explained.

They loved being out­doors in this weather,” she said, but as we near com­ple­tion of this year’s har­vest we would like to see some rain as we still have severe water restric­tions after three years of drought and des­per­ately need dams to fill this win­ter, as well as recharge the ground­wa­ter table.”

Philip King, man­ager of Mardouw Olive Estate in Swellendam, said they started har­vest­ing in mid-March and fin­ished just before the end of May.

Transportation of work­ers was a chal­lenge, as phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing was required,” he said, which meant that more trips had to be done in the morn­ings and the after­noons.”

We also requested that only two work­ers should har­vest per tree, keep­ing the 1.5‑meter phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing at all times,” he said.

King said that in spite of these restric­tions, this has been their sec­ond-best har­vest ever.



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