Strawberry farming requires courage, patience, labour, and a lot of perseverance.
Madelé Ferreira, female farmer from Mooihoek farm in the Gamtoos Valley in the Hankey district, started with 5 000 strawberry plants. Today Mooihoek is one of the leading suppliers of strawberries in South Africa. Faith and commitment have taken this enterprise to great heights!
From minister’s daughter to farmer
“My father is a minister, but my grandfather was a farmer, and that’s where my love for farming was cultivated. Ever since I was a little girl, my biggest dream was to marry a farmer… and then my dream really came true. I have been married to my farmer husband Johan for 32 years now,” says Madelé excitedly.
“I have always had the ambition to set up my own sustainable business, but never thought that one day I would be farming myself,” she adds.
“We farm on a family farm that has been in the family for three generations. The original farm has been in the family for exactly a century this year.”
“Life has not always been easy and smooth. My husband and his father initially farmed with vegetables. Johan experimented a bit with strawberries, but gave up growing it small scale,” she shares.
Determined, Madelé stepped in before Johan ploughed the land. And she has grown from the first 5 000 strawberry plants in her dying rose garden, to one of the leading suppliers in South Africa.
“Today we have close to one million plants. Over the years, the business has grown from where we started delivering to the municipal market to where we supply the large chain store groups in the Eastern Cape locally, as well as nationally, and export to the Middle East,” says Madelé.
To farm with a touch of faith
“A need arose for a local strawberry producer in the Eastern Cape as the nearest supplier was 300 km away. We saw the gap in the market and seized the opportunity. We are very grateful today for all the opportunities that have come our way, and that we have been able to build such good relationships with the chain groups over the years, despite all the challenges. It’s all just grace from above,” adds Madelé.
“I started my small business from a four-door garage and today I am proud to say that we have a world-class packhouse from which everything is operated, and which is also based on HACCP standards,” she says.
Over the years, spinach has also become part of Mooihoek’s products, so that the farming enterprise today consists of 75% strawberry production and 25% spinach production.
“We produce spinach that is packaged and supplied to the chain store groups. We have a 25 Ha Agrico pivot irrigating the spinach,” says Madelé.
The Mooihoek team currently consists of 110 permanent staff members, and during peak season times they employ 180 to 200 seasonal workers.
A high-adrenaline challenge for a high-energy woman
Strawberries are picked early in the morning and are immediately stored in a cold reception room, so that the strawberries can be processed and packed as cold as possible. The temperature of the packhouse and refrigerated trucks must be kept the same to ensure quality and shelf life of the strawberries.
“In my opinion, the biggest challenges of the industry are the enormously high input costs and the risks one faces because a strawberry does not have a long shelf life. Strawberry farming is really nothing but labour farming,” says Madelé jokingly.
Every year every little plant is replaced. “All the plastic, the drippers, and everything must be removed – the soil is prepared, and you start all over again,” explains Madelé.
Terrible droughts to fierce floods have brought Mooihoek to its knees a few times. “Weather conditions are a very big challenge in our area, especially for strawberry farming, because strawberries do not like extremes at all!” said Madelé.
“It remains high-adrenaline farming because everything has to happen quickly. Mercifully, I am blessed with high energy levels,” says Madelé with a laugh.
Madelé’s passion and drive
“I love my farming. I welcome every day at four in the morning when my alarm goes off. The opportunity that farming offers you to be innovative, to be able to make a meaningful contribution, and to be able to live out your passion is truly a privilege,” says Madelé.
“Farming teaches you passion, faith, and perseverance. The greatest pleasure for me is to grow, plant, care for and see the strawberry plants grow from start to finish until you see the end product on the shelves with your logo. It is very rewarding,” says Madelé.
“It’s nice for me to be a woman in the industry; to be able to see a gap and opportunities in the market and empower people with my knowledge. I believe a woman’s sixth sense is her biggest competitive advantage,” she adds confidently.
“I can get very excited about a sprayer, a plough, and a tractor, just as excited as I can about a lovely carpet and a pretty dress,” adds Madelé with a laugh.
75% of Mooihoek farming is under drip irrigation from Agrico
The choice of strawberry variety and the care the plants receive are extremely important. Water management is just as important because strawberries are sensitive to too much or too little water. Madelé uses Agrico’s drip irrigation system to make sure that the plants get exactly the right volume of water.
The ground is covered with black tarps to make sure that the moisture and nutrients in the ground are preserved and that a favourable micro-climate is maintained at all times.
“We have an automated PC drip irrigation system from Agrico installed under the plastic cover to water the strawberry plants. The last eight years of drought have led us to plan water management down to the last drop. This is precisely why we use precision management to ensure that no plant gets too little or too much water.
The water application is regulated with the automated system. The water is also enriched with soluble fertiliser, providing the strawberries with nutrients daily. “I do the fertiliser planning myself, the regulation of the fertiliser application as well as the spraying programs and chemical application,” adds Madelé.
Madelé says: “Because the strawberries’ water needs vary so much, it is not enough to consistently apply the same volume of water per plant. Your feet and eyes must constantly be in the fields to check the plants. Roughly we can work on about 250 to 500 ml of water (during high summer) per day per plant.
“I have been walking a path with Jaco Van Niekerk, Branch Manager at Agrico Patensie, for about twelve years. He is excellent at his job. His expertise and incredible professional service and knowledge really took my farming forward. He is so helpful and patient, especially with my blonde moments that sometimes jumps out,” says Madelé with a laugh.
“Service, relationships, expertise, support, and staying up to date with the latest developments are very important to farmers in today’s times, and this is precisely why we use Agrico,” she adds.
“When we recently had to sink our borehole, build a dam and have pumps installed, he gave us incredibly good advice and helped where he could. We are very grateful to Agrico. We look forward to the road ahead with Jaco and the Agrico team. And if we have a bit more water, it will be even better!” she said excitedly.
For your optimal irrigation system, talk to Agrico. On their website, www.agrico.co.za, you can see the contact details of your nearest branch and read more about all their solutions.