Exporting berries to the UK has its own unique challenges

Nestling among the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains near George, in South Africa’s Western Cape province, is Blue Mountain Berries (BMB) farm, a well-known producer of blueberries. Blueberries are an extremely popular berry due to its high anti-oxidant value and various other health benefits. These qualities are highly promoted by British retailers, which provide the market for BMB. How we made it in Africa’s Loraine Stander talked to owner, Chrisleo Botha.

What are the specific challenges involved with berry farming?

As berries are sold as fresh produce, the post harvest process from the field to the customer is crucial. The cold chain for the picked produce starts immediately after the harvest process. The berries are brought directly into the packing house where it is precooled before it is sorted and packed in 600g punnets. These punnets are then palletised after which it is refrigerated and transported by truck to Cape Town from where it is air- or sea freighted to the UK. The sea freighted fruit is transported in controlled atmosphere containers to ensure that the fruit retains its structure and taste. Expensive air freight rates and time constraints to get the product from the field to the customer are huge challenges.

Berry farming is also labour intensive. The berries are picked by hand and during harvest time our permanent workforce of 85 can swell to 800 seasonal labourers at full production. Getting that number of workers to the farm from George provides its own logistical problems.

BMB exports 90% of its crop to the United Kingdom. What are the specific requirements demanded by the British market?

We need to comply and adhere to the quality, ethical and environmental standards set by our target market. This entails undergoing various audits, including GLOBALGAP the leading international good agricultural practices scheme; Tesco Nature’s Choice (TNC), a set of safety, quality and environmental standards of production that suppliers of produce to supermarket group Tesco in the UK must comply with; and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) audits that target retailers, brand owners and manufacturing facilities doing business in or with the European Union. Other audits are by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) that promotes environmentally responsible farming and by the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (Sedex), which is a membership organisation for businesses committed to continuous improvement of the ethical performance of their supply chains.

BMB was the first Fair Trade accredited blueberry grower in the world. What does it entail to be a Fair Trade producer?

Fair Trade is a global movement that aims to improve production and trading conditions to benefit smallholders, farm workers and disadvantaged employees and artisans. We have established the Bessieplaas Werkerstrust, a workers’ trust that owns a portion of BMB. 39 BMB employees have qualified to be beneficiaries of the trust. The trust pays its way with a repayable loan from the European Investment Bank, which is being administered by South Africa’s Industrial Development Corporation. Fair Trade premiums are paid to the BMB Social Development Trust, which caters specifically to the social and economical development of all the BMB workers, permanent and seasonal.

Blue Mountain Berries has 70 hectares of fruit under shade netting.

Blue Mountain Berries has 70 hectares of fruit under shade netting.

One’s first impression of BMB is the huge expanse under shade netting. To put 70 hectares under shade nets must have been a huge capital outlay?

Shade nets form a substantial part of the total capital outlay as do the irrigation infrastructure and the packhouse facilities. BMB does have the IDC as a 33% shareholder.

What are the advantages of shade netting for berry farming?

The Knittex shade nets provides bird- and wind control. It also lets rainwater through and reduces evaporation. Therefore the water requirement is much less than in the open. Water is efficiently managed and scheduled by using drip irrigation and moisture probes.