Despite the myriad of challenges facing the South African wine industry, wine grape production can still be profitable. We speak to progressive producer Zirkie du Toit, from the farm Klipdrift in Goudini, about what it takes to be profitable and cost-effective in this industry.
Q: What notable changes to your farming practices have helped you be more profitable?
ZDT: Through electrostatic sprayers I’m able to double-up on the speed at which my sprayers operate, which has essentially halved my fuel consumption. I try to operate as economically as possible with the implements at my disposal so there’s no unnecessary duplication. With my herbicides, instead of driving through each row, I have a two-row herbicide sprayer, meaning I only have to operate every second row. I use double nozzles for better coverage (bedecking) and I can take my speed up to 6 km/h instead of the traditional 4 km/h. I’m also fully mechanised, so the saving on labour costs is considerably higher than more traditional grape producers in our region.
Q: The sub-letting of equipment is touted as an additional source of income for producers who own machinery. Is this viable?
ZDT: There are two schools of thinking here. Machinery can be expensive, and some producers are apprehensive about hiring out their assets, because they often think of the maintenance and replacement costs. On the other hand, some producers feel that because machines cost so much money, they need to work every day to justify the price tag. In my case, I don’t hire out my machinery, and I try to keep my equipment as neat and pristine as possible. When you start experiencing breakdowns, it can cause a lot of headaches for your operation. With mechanisation, timing is everything where certain vineyard tasks are concerned.
Q: Should South African producers consider investing in mechanisation?
ZDT: Yes, I think so. Without being too insensitive to the work force of the South African wine industry who are instrumental to the future, the truth is that labour is a very costly expense for any farming operation. If you’re dedicated to upskilling your staff, then that’s good, but we need to look at what mechanisation can offer the farmer in terms of profitability. It tends to be more reliable and one person can do the job of forty or fifty. I strongly feel that producers should invest in machinery, and keep it in tip-top condition to get the most out of its life cycle. For instance, if you buy a tractor, buy one with the correct kilowatt rating and make sure it’s implemented correctly.
Q: How does topography influence your farm management decisions?
ZDT: In terms of mechanisation, I try to keep my terrain as flat as possible. Here in Goudini, the terrain’s pretty flat, so we’re lucky in that regard. But keeping the terrain flat allows me to increase the speed of my sprayers and harvesting machines. Not only will this reduce wear and tear, but you’re also able to work more accurately in the vineyard. If the terrain’s too uneven, it could cause damage to a mist blower for instance. We also look at minimising turning time between vineyard rows.
Q: How important is water management to your practice?
ZDT: Water management is very important, especially with the recent droughts. We’ve realised how little water we actually need to sustain our vineyards. Effective water management is critical, but so is the automation of your water systems. If it wasn’t for the automation on my drip irrigation system, the drought would have dealt us a severe blow. We’re applying smaller amounts of water more regularly, which has saved us money and time.
Q: Have you seen a significant increase in profitability since changing spray pumps?
ZDT: Most definitely. I started out using a two-row vineyard sprayer from Cima, which stood me in good stead over the years. Years later, I moved to a Martignani electrostatic sprayer. We compared apples with apples, and in terms of fuel consumptions and efficiency, I made a decision to go over to the Martignani about five years ago. We did the math in 2015. In terms of our running costs, we saved a substantial R48 000 per season on a 70 ha unit in comparison to the Cima.
Q: How has Covid-19 affected your farming operations?
ZDT: Because I only have three permanent employees, we’ve been able to manage social distancing quite easily. We weren’t much of a risk factor during this time. The big issue however was with the harvest and cellar during the initial ban (which was then luckily allowed). We had sleepless nights about surplus and space in the cellar. But the current alcohol ban has severely affected the greater wine value chain, which eventually trickles down back to the farmer.