farmers, Niche Farmers
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Mushrooms don’t take holidays

writer: Maryke Roberts photography: Michel Dei-Cont

We pop in at the Jacobs Farm of Hannes, Helena, Johan and Marelize Jacobs. The grass-green table-grape vineyards frame a pack shed and office, but it’s the interesting arch-roof constructions nearby that grab our attention. Jacobs Farm is also the home of Royal Mushrooms.

Hannes acquired the 33ha property in 1989, but because he was raised on a table-grape farm and has years of experience as a civil engineer, he shied away from getting involved in growing mushrooms. He chuckles as he looks back, saying he might have done things differently but in the words of the old people – with age comes wisdom.

The farm was planted to 27ha of table grapes almost 30 years ago. In 2005/06, he set aside two hectares for mushrooms. Today, there are 24ha under table grapes and Crimson seedless comprise the majority.

“It was the drought of 2005/06 that led me to investigate other possibilities. I wanted to establish an agricultural product that requires less water, but which could provide work for farm workers and especially women, over the entire year. Table grapes are seasonal, which means many people are unemployed for months.

“I looked at other commodities – even flowers – and then came across mushrooms.

“We are one of the few mushroom producers in the Western Cape and most are very closed about the inner workings of this kind of farming. It wasn’t easy to get advice like jumping in my bakkie and driving over to my neighbour.

“Fortunately, I heard about Hannes Rossouw of Reece Mushrooms at Hartbeespoort Dam and he invited me to visit his plant.

“You need nine rooms for a full grow cycle, and I’d constructed 18. I walked around his farm with pen and paper taking notes and then implemented them here at home. When I struggled, I got back on a plane to fetch more notes,” he says, smiling.

At the start, the biggest challenge was to produce the right growth medium or substrate (straw, chicken manure and gypsum). A pre-requisite is that the substrate never become anaerobic. The drought of the past year affected the quality of hay and the farm had to cope with poor grades. Now straw comes from Hopetown at double the price, but the quality of the substrate is up to standard.

Royal Mushrooms supplies well-known retail chains like Pick ’n Pay, Freshmark (Shoprite/Checkers) and Spar, from Port Elizabeth to Langebaan, as well as smaller stores. They mostly use their own refrigerated trucks to ensure control of the cold chain and handling of the mushrooms. The total production comprises 90% button mushrooms and 10% Portobellini and the farm harvests an average of 16 tons per week, 52 weeks of the year.

“That’s why few producers risk farming mushrooms: the mushrooms have a cycle and don’t take a holiday. You work every day, but I’m proud to have 120 permanent employees who are active throughout the year.

“We just appointed James Godloza as chief mushroom farmer, which has freed me to look at other projects,” says Hannes. He says mushrooms aren’t an easy crop to farm and initially requires considerable capital investment.

He takes us into the mushroom grow-rooms and using his torch, lights up the bags as he explains the process. Hannes’s enthusiasm and passion are contagious, and he encourages us to pick a few of the lily-white mushrooms to taste.

It takes four weeks to produce the substrate, during which it is also pasteurised. Thereafter, sterile wheat grains to which spores adhere are mixed into the substrate and placed in bags. These are then kept in the grow rooms at around 27°C.

Days later, the wheat grains are covered in a layer resembling sprinkled baby powder, which indicates the process is underway. The spores initially feed on the grain and then grow through the substrate over some two weeks. Then a layer of peat, imported from Ireland, is added. The bags are individually watered by hand to ensure consistent irrigation.

After 14 days, once the mycelium has grown through the substrate, the ambient temperature is lowered to around 18°C. Soon, the mushrooms begin to appear and proceed to double in size every 24-hours. “The balance between too dry and too wet is very important for optimal development, which is why good quality water is essential.” Borehole water is used here.

Hannes adds: “Hygiene is our greatest challenge because the Trichoderma Virus often occurs in the substrate. It affects the volume of mushrooms each bag can produce. Usually, every 18kg of substrate has the potential to deliver four kilograms of mushrooms. A competitive market and the rapid spoilage of the product add to the challenges.

“We can harvest four or five times before we sell the substrate as used compost to grape farmers. The compost is pasteurised and therefore free of eelworm; has high nutrition value; and, is rich in nitrogen and therefore excellent sustenance for grapes,” he says as he works his fingers through the dark, damp compost.

The farm erected its own dedicated shed for packing mushrooms and it occasionally runs round-the-clock because the mushrooms must be packed immediately after picking. Royal Mushrooms packs under its own label and according to merchant specifications, delivering fresh, whole or sliced mushrooms. They also experiment with sundried and powdered mushrooms.

Hannes’s son, Johan, joined his father on the farm in 2009. As head of table grape production, he’s responsible for the marketing and export of all the table grapes. Where this division is concerned, Johan says: “In the off-season we replace old varieties with labour and client-friendly varieties that are popular now in overseas markets.”

With Johan’s sister, Marelize Smit, also involved in the farm, the three, make a formidable team thanks to their respective skills and personalities. For a few years, Marelize oversaw the picking, packing and labour divisions and currently runs the finances.

Johan says his father taught them the motto: when the going gets tough, keep building – it’s something Hannes learnt from his own father. One thing is sure: this family knows hard work and the farm is their pride. They have big plans and believe the Royal Mushroom team is set to achieve great heights.

Farm: Jacobs-Boerdery| Owners: Hannes, Helena, Johan and Marelize Jacobs | Location: Hexriviervallei, Western Cape, South Africa | Contact:

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Maryke is a prizewinning journalist whose articles have been published countrywide. She has written about a wide range of subjects including books, actors, theatre, food, wine and travel. When she pulls over to open a farm gate and shakes the farmer’s hand, the anticipation rushes through her veins. “Agriculture is more than the production of food – it is the heart and soul of our country. And this is where you’ll discover tales of true grit,” according to her.

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