Zulch’s use higher-density planting, better varieties, nets
Robert Zulch and sons, Johan and Fourie on their farm Wakkerstroom in the Witzenberg Valley of Ceres won The Chairman’s Award at Ceres Fruit Growers several times for the highest number of total points. By that accolade alone they were the best producer. But, as Robert Zulch says, “the whole world is changing around us so how can we stay the same?” Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, the largest exporter of South African apples and pears, and a company owned by the growers at Ceres Fruit Growers and Two-a-Day in Grabouw, sells the fruit Wakkerstroom produces.
“You must always keep costs at the back of your head,” says Zulch who has increased planting densities and is selecting dwarfing rootstock M9 and M26 to limit the height of the trees. The Zulchs are also aiming to shape trees into two-dimensions to give the fruit the best chance of equal sun exposure and to limit the use of active ingredients like pesticides. “You can see what pests are in the tree far easier and this technique also makes the trees easier to pick. And, in a significant move, he has tilted production to 90% apples and the 10% remaining pears are now only Abate Fetel, a decision based on the changing climate and the market’s demand.
“We need to make labour a smaller part of the total costs and while we are not retrenching staff, we are not looking to create new positions either. This is about increasing productivity with the excellent staff we already have. Producing more with the same labour,” he says.
On Wakkerstroom they have used and continue to use Malus Hillieri and other crab apples as pollinators rather than Granny Smith, or other bearing varieties.
“When we started to look at greater dense plantings 25-years ago, we planted more densely then, at 4.5 meters but now have reduced to 3.5 meters in width and a planting distance of one meter or 750 centimeters, depending on the soil and the cultivar. The smaller trees also mean less pruning.
“For the last 12 years we have only had one cultivar per block which also makes picking more efficient. What we are doing is standard, but we are experimenting with root stocks to see which works best.
“We are also looking at the new pink strains, Rosy Glow, Lady in Red and Ruby Pink to see if we can achieve a better pack out. We get high tonnage, big crops, and consistent pack outs so our goal is to improve colour,” he says.
According to Zulch, Wakkerstroom also has several test blocks assessing different types of nets: woven verses knitted, and different colours but so far it seems that black fabric with 18% to 21% shade performs best. “We’ve done 12 different tests with nets – red break first, then blue, so we will avoid these. With 20% shade, we can limit sunburn to a minimum. The temperature under the nets is only 1.5 degrees lower than on the outside. Currently, 12 ha out of our total 135 ha are under nets but in time this will increase, despite the costs.” Zulch says high-density planting costs with nets are nearing R1 million per hectare.
“The trick we have to learn is to plant 2,800 to 3,800 trees per hectare with 0.75 to 1 meter planting distance in the row. What we try to do is to learn about M9 and M26 and how to train and prune the trees to get budwood as early as possible and keep the tree in the allocated space,” he says.
Ownership of apple varieties Royal Beaut and Fuji Royal are registered to the Zulchs although Plant Breeder’s Rights on Royal Beaut have now expired, Robert Zulch is working on improved versions of Royal Beaut. “We are growing about 70 tons of Fuji Royal in the third leaf,” he says. “I’m also interested in Inored and have planted six hectares as South African-grown Inored seems less prevalent to Internal Browning compared to European/UK-grown Inored.”
“We took a decision to replant faster but to do so one needs the capital. We will continue with our planting strategy through to 2026 but if market conditions do not improve by then, we will have to reassess,” he says.
Geopolitical and macro-economic issues are here to stay as far as Zulch is concerned and he is readying himself for up to another three to four years of tough times ahead.
If you take the price for juice and you have a crop that, for whatever reason, must be delivered to the juice factory, you can still recover 70% of your production costs. Apples always tend to bounce back,” he says explaining there will always be a market for quality apples.
His final word? “I must keep planting. If I stop planting and developing, I am dead.”