Bheki Mashile's Letter from Umjindi

Passion fruit? Forget it!

What is on my mind this new year of 2017? Quite a bit actually – although, being a journalist is enough to prevent my mind from occasionally just taking a chill. Add to that my farming responsibilities and you have a cocktail that could drive a weaker soul cuckoo.

Be that as it may, one of the top things on my mind is to remind myself to be careful what you wish for – you just might get it. You see, early last year a friend introduced me to a company that specialises in manufacturing fruit juice concentrates. I thought he was doing me a favour, since this company outsources the planting of some of its fruit to other farmers – a ready market. And, as those in the know know, failure to secure markets has been one of the biggest contributors to the demise of many black-owned farms.

So naturally this here emerging farmer (although I prefer to refer to myself as an agri-entrepreneur) was over the moon at securing another market, particularly one for commodities that were not part of my original planting programme. Sweetening this opportunity was the fact that the manufacturer would be supplying the key inputs, planting material and even technical support.

 But I am not keeping in mind “Be careful what you wish for”. Next, my new-found partners, the juice concentrate manufacturers, decide: “Hey, let’s kick-start you guys with two crops: guavas and granadillas.”

“Hey whatever we kick off with is fine with me,” I say with enthusiasm.

They proceeded to explain that the guavas would take roughly two years to produce a full harvest. My enthusiasm took a dive – like the rand when President Zuma subjected our Ministry of Finance to a short-lived dance craze called the Nene-Pravin shuffle, brought about by a hit song, State Capture, as recorded by Jay Zee and the Goopters.

Waiting two years for a guava harvest does not sit well with an emerging farmer who needs to generate income ASAP. After all, this emerging farmer is already facing a seven-year wait for the first macadamia harvest.

Yes! when that mac harvest comes through it will be nice, considering what macadamias currently fetch at market – and the future outlook is said to be even more promising. Still, it is a seven-year wait, so I thank the Almighty for the cash-crop markets I have secured to fill the gap.

Bheki amongst his rampant granadilla creepers

Seeing my dismay at the two-year guava news, the juice manufacturer’s rep makes an effort to reassure me there is immediate light at the end of the tunnel with the granadillas. He explains that you can expect to harvest them in eight months’ time; moreover, one can expect two harvests a year. “Well,” I say with fully revived enthusiasm, “now we’re talking.”

Fast forward. A few weeks later I am called to come and pick up my first allocation of seedlings for the granadilla crop. Excited, I virtually fly to juice concentrate manufacturer Bron Pro’s farm/production facility. There, Bron Pro’s absolute gentleman-and-a-half farm manager says, “Sorry Bheki we cannot give you the promised seed volumes for a full hectare as we discussed, however we can give you roughly 500 seedlings to start with.Granadilla seedlings are hard to find and we get our supply from a nursery in Cape Town”. At this news I remark to myself, “Ah! s***t! I was really hoping to do a hectare”.

Fast forward again. Keen as mustard, I knuckle down with my loyal workers to plant the 500 granadilla seedlings allocated to me.

Now, granadillas are also known as passion fruit. Yeah, right! I would soon learn that this plant has no passion. And I’m reminded: Be careful what you wish for!

Fast forward yet again. Six months on and I have granadillas growing on a small portion of the farm, not even a quarter of a hectare. We have done well, followed all the technical advice and, all in all, I am happy with the progress. Not just happy but damn well proud of myself.

I had been advised that the best – and really, the only – way to farm the fruit properly is to set up a grapevine- like support for the plants – which we did successfully.

But here is what Bron Pro did not tell me: this damn plant grows like a weed and if you do not manage and control it, then you are in s***t. Funny though, my main man on the farm – who has been working on farms for 20-odd years – kept laughing and saying, “Bhuti Bheki, do you really know what you are into with granadillas? When this baby grows, it has these tentacles that wrap around the vine and if you do not take time to guide it upwards it just grips and goes sideways.”

Untangling that baby is a nightmare. And one that must be dealt with every day – yes every day – or you lose control.

Passion fruit! Yeah right! They certainly aren’t my passion.

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