Technology aids farmers amid water crisis

As the country continues to battle the ravages of an ongoing drought in various areas, farmers in the Eastern Cape are increasingly turning to technology to keep the effects of the water crisis at bay.

This is particularly evident in the Gamtoos Valley where a number of farmers have notched up considerable success in the face of adversity – including a 60% reduction in their annual water allocation for 2017/18.One of these is Leon de Koning of the farm Highlands, who grows and packages an extensive range of produce, including carrots, beetroot and a variety of lettuces for chain stores such as Pick n Pay and Checkers.

Not only that, but Highlands also specialises in selling peeled and prepared vegetables to local restaurants and, with the Western Cape also in the grip of a crippling drought, many of the goods grown at Highlands are finding their way onto supermarket shelves in that province too.But achieving this success has not been easy and has demanded moving with the times.

Successfully sinking a borehole was not enough for De Koning, who opted to go high tech.“We use computers to measure exactly how much water each plant needs. This works and has helped us a lot,” he said.Exact drip irrigationAnother Gamtoos Valley farmer who is reaping the rewards of technology is Johan Ferreira, who specialises in growing raspberries and strawberries.

At his farm Mooihoek, exact drip irrigation is used to ensure that not a drop more water than needed is used to get these fruits onto Eastern Cape tables.“It’s really not difficult to grow strawberries and raspberries, although the latter do not enjoy the heat so we use nets to protect them,” Ferreira said.A product that is, however, suffering is spinach, with less than the usual crop being grown at Mooihoek.“At this point, we are surviving and I don’t see prices rising in the shops any time soon,” Ferreira said.

“But with the drought also affecting the Western Cape, if we don’t get good rain in two to three months that could all change.”Also relying heavily on technology for the survival, not only of his citrus crop but also of the herbs which can be found at Woolworths, Spar and Pick n Pay, is Charlie Malan of Waterwiel Farm.Waterwiel started out on a very small scale 20 years ago and, like Highlands, has grown rapidly using the latest advances in farming.“We have probes in the ground which alert us to which trees are dying, allowing us to take prompt action to ensure a guaranteed crop,” Malan said.

“We are also using the services of an adviser from a citrus research station in Nelspruit, garnering information about how much fertiliser and water is needed to ensure the success of the crop.”All products at Waterwiel, including lettuce and 18 different types of herbs, are packaged on site for distribution throughout the Eastern Cape and the rest of the country.Gamtoos Irrigation BoardEnsuring that the available water is divided evenly among valley farmers like De Koning, Ferreira, and Malan, and helping to manage the drought, falls to the Gamtoos Irrigation Board (GIB).

“We manage the water quota of all water users and, in the process, make sure that everyone is treated fairly and receives the quota that they are entitled to,” said GIB financial and human resources manager Rienette Colesky.“We also supply the Hankey and Patensie municipalities, as well as the Port Elizabeth metro, attempting to keep the municipalities within their quota and protect the farmers’ quotas.

“On a monthly basis, the board measures the user’s water meters and letters are sent to farmers indicating their usage and also what their average usage should be. This can be used as a management tool by farmers,” said Colesky.“The canal system is also maintained at a high level to ensure that water losses are kept to the minimum.”

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