Sought-after East London tomatoes reap revenue from afar

An unassuming yet ubiquitous fresh product — that’s the ambivalent status of the tomato in most household and commercial kitchens.
An unassuming yet ubiquitous fresh product — that’s the ambivalent status of the tomato in most household and commercial kitchens.
Image: SUPPLIED

An unassuming yet ubiquitous fresh product — that’s the ambivalent status of the tomato in most household and commercial kitchens.

And yet, how would our favourite South African bredie or stew, Cape curry, pizza, summer salad, or even a polony sandwich taste without the sweet, sometimes piquant, flavour of tomatoes?

The East London tomato farms, which lie roughly along a 60km stretch between Kwelerha and Kidds Beach, constitute South Africa’s second biggest tomato production area, although there are only about 20 commercial producers contributing to the yield.

It is difficult to get official production and sales figures for tomatoes. But it's clear that local producers hold their own despite three-quarters of the country’s annual production of almost half a billion tonnes of tomatoes coming from the Lowveld area of Limpopo province, with ZZ2 tomatoes alone producing 40% of the country’s total crop.

In the East London area, about 20,000 tons are produced, valued at about R200m, according to Andrew Emslie of Red Baron tomatoes. Up to 95% of locally produced tomatoes are trucked and sold to Pick 'n Pay, Checkers and Spar distribution centres, and on fresh produce markets in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. The remaining 5% are sold in Buffalo City, Nelson Mandela Bay and Mthatha.

The Johannesburg market, the country’s biggest fresh produce market, sold an average of R3m of tomatoes every day last week, at about R8,05 per kilogram, sourced from local farms and the Lowveld.

From an economic point of view for East London, that’s good revenue coming back in from other areas. The quality of our product in East London is of the best

“From an economic point of view for East London, that’s good revenue coming back in from other areas,” Scheepers says.

“The quality of our product in East London is of the best.

“The Lowveld tomato does not have the shelf life that the East London tomato has.

“Ours is a sought-after product because the buyers know it has a good shelf life and fairly good flavour.

“It’s basically pre-sold [before it arrives at the market].

“The agent that side will ask ‘how much is coming in?’ and he’ll call his buyers and sell it before it actually arrives there.

“That’s the good name East London has got.”

He attributes the quality of the BCM product to good fertiliser and chemical application, the method of growing, the region’s moderate climate — “it all plays its part”.

Tomatoes have been planted around East London for generations.

Farmers grouped into a co-operative model, the East London Tomato Packers, grew to 36 farmers who were supplying between 30-40 refrigerated trucks per week to national markets during the peak summer period.

Until about 15 years ago, all the producers farmed in the field on the small parcels of available land.

Though the region’s “adverse weather — excess wind and rain” are problematic for the crop, the moderate all-round temperatures and the absence of frost are a boon.

Then, at the turn of the century, Claude Randall — whose farm Scheepers later bought — put up eight steel and plastic hydroponic tunnels, a method of farming mimicking greenhouse conditions.

The usual soil of the open field is replaced with alternative growth mediums such as sawdust or coco peat, and liquid solutions containing essential nutrients are circulated through the tunnel.

Scheepers, who was then heading the packers co-op, says: “At the time, we could get about 40% first grade tomatoes from the open field crop.

In the tunnels, they could get up to 90% first grade tomatoes. Now that was a huge development

“In the tunnels, they could get up to 90% first grade tomatoes. Now that was a huge development.”

Better quality tomatoes meant an elimination of the previous 25% wastage from the time produce left the packing shed to the time it was on the shelf, leading to less trucking to markets.

Additionally, yields per hectare increased from 60 tonnes for field farming to 350 tonnes a hectare of tunnels.

“It was a huge change. Production increased dramatically.”

At the end of that year, there were 90 tunnels in EL and over the next decade, there was “an explosion” in the operation of tunnels because of the benefits, though the costs increased all the time, largely due to currency fluctuations.

Today, virtually all EL tomato production is done in tunnels and greenhouses which ensures better quality and all-year-round production. The plants are protected from coastal winds and rain, and crop protection chemicals are about one fifth of those used for traditional outdoor field production.

The tunnel system provides for highly intensive farming in a small area throughout the year, though winter yields are a third of summer ones. Yields vary from 300 to 400 tons per ha depending on the producer.

The area under tomatoes locally is still too small to supply beyond the fresh produce market, and there are no canning facilities in the area.

Scheepers left the packers’ co-op in 2000. By then the organisation had grown into “a huge entity” and individual farmers felt they had lost their identity.

The co-op broke up into about six smaller packing houses, but some farmers still co-operate.

“In my operation, I pack for three additional farmers. 

“The Kidds Beach farmers formed their own entity there.”

According to Emslie, tomatoes destined for the retailers are packed in the retailer branded packaging and transported to the relevant supermarket distribution centre — all paid for by the farmer. He said farmers receive about 55% of the retail price on average, although Scheepers put the return to farmers at about a third of the retail price.

The fresh produce markets are controlled by the municipalities and are generally very poorly maintained despite the municipality earning 5% commission on all sales of all fruit and vegetable products

“The fresh produce markets are controlled by the municipalities and are generally very poorly maintained despite the municipality earning 5% commission on all sales of all fruit and vegetable products,” said Emslie.

On the high standards applied by retailers, Scheepers said it is essential for the continued wellbeing of the business.

“If they become too lenient, the public will suffer because we will send in scrap tomatoes, so they have to be tough to safeguard the consumer.

“SA retailers are tough but we have a good relationship. I’ve been in the business for 30 years now. For me to move two million kilograms is not an easy task. My retailer is my marketing arm.”

Scheepers said there are stringent food safety protocols and audits of farming and packaging operations, following global best practice.

“Our product is safe. And everybody else in our industry who is audited — their product is safe.

“SA consumers of tomatoes are getting a good, safe product.”

While SA farmers meet the country requirement for fresh tomatoes and the country exports a small surplus, we fall short on meeting demand for processed tomato products — canned or processed purée, sauce and paste.

Only about 10% of the national crop is processed, mostly into tomato sauce.

In 2016, about 35,000 tonnes of tomato paste were imported, suggesting there might be an opportunity for more investment in local processing facilities, but that will require a significant capital injection and secure agreements with farmers.

Scheepers reminisces about a short-lived attempt at exporting EL tomatoes to Britain.

The tomatoes would be picked locally early in the morning, subjected to auditing and packaged for an afternoon flight to Johannesburg, to meet an overnight flight to Heathrow airport.

Early the next morning, they would be available for distribution to Sainsbury stores in London.

“We did that for months but we couldn’t get the right volumes.”

He is concerned about the tight margins in the local sector, which are getting “tougher and tougher”, though he believes there will be a recovery one day.

Drought remains a concern for tomato farmers, as Scheepers said: “If we plant, we look at how much water we have and assess whether there is enough to take the crop through. If you cannot take the crop through, it’s a disaster. The money that you’ve spent, you’re getting nothing for it.”

But the hydroponic farming method is highly water efficient. Emslie said, adding the process requires meticulous attention to detail seven days a week, with plants irrigated up to 12 times a day, depending on their stage of growth.

Scheepers employs 100 people on his two farms and the packing house; the 20 local tomato farmers employ about 1,000 people in total, said Emslie.

It’s still labour intensive, though mechanisation is increasing rapidly in Europe, because it allows high speed operations, which make it possible to meet retailer demands to get the products into stores, as fresh as possible and as quickly as possible.

Both farmers lament government spending huge sums of money to purchase to purchase about seven tomato farms as part of the agricultural land reform process, and financing of tomato projects, which have not produced any results.

Sadly not one of these projects or farms is operational despite millions on grants being paid out over the years.  Many jobs have been lost as a result

“Sadly not one of these projects or farms is operational despite millions on grants being paid out over the years. Many jobs have been lost as a result. Most of the farms have been vandalised and asset stripped,” said Emslie.

Scheepers said the biggest requirement the industry has of government is for research.

“If you look at Canada and Australia, there is fantastic government service to farmers. That’s where I get my information. But our conditions are not their conditions, that’s why we need our own research.”

The industry faces two major international problems — tuta absoluta, a 2mm moth, and whiteflies, which both can be devastating for farmers.

“That moth lays its eggs in the leaves, stem or fruit, and we try to control the lavae with chemicals or attract the moths into ultraviolet light traps.”

One of the affects of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown is the transport costs for workers on the farm, as they are forced to take individual taxis to work, as conveying them in a single vehicle is not allowed in terms of social distancing requirements.

“We definitely need subsidisation there,” he said.


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