What makes a Sandveld potato special?

Grethe Bestbier

The potato farmer is rough, tough and lives close to the ground. A staple of the earth, if ever there was one, just like the crop he digs out of the soil season after season. But today’s potato farmer is so much more. Stephan & Seun farming is an example of this. This team is not afraid of the new century. Young, ambitious and technologically driven, Johan Stephan (28) talks about potato cultivation, irrigation, the road with Agrico and what makes a Sandveld potato stand out.

A potato business with deep roots

Stephan & Seun was founded in the 1960s when the Stephan family planted their first potatoes in the Piketberg sand. Today, the team consists of around 140 permanent members who, in his words, “specialise in potatoes”.

Their path crossed in the 1970s with that of Agrico (at that time P Andrag & Seuns). Decades later, Agrico is still Stephan & Seun’s preferred irrigation supplier, with Piketberg branch manager Niël Carstens at the helm. Throughout the year, mainly Mondial, as well as Lanorma and Siffra potatoes are cultivated on this land. 

“We produce potatoes 12 months of the year. This means that at any given month, every production phase will take place, from harvesting to planting to packing and marketing. There is always something going on,” says Johan.

What makes a Sandveld potato better than the rest? 

The Free State, Limpopo and the Sandveld are known as South Africa’s largest potato producing regions. When you ask a Sandveld farmer like Johan what sets their potatoes apart from the rest, he explains how the environment works together to produce a top-quality product.

“The area’s sandy and well-aerated soil allows us to plant and harvest when farmers in the Free State or Limpopo may experience problems due to clay in the soil,” he explains.

Where many other regions experience extreme cold and even frost in the winter months, the moderate climate in the Sandveld knows no cut-off point for production. Hence the ability to produce throughout the year. In addition, the structure of the sand also produces a cleaner potato without unattractive marks, with less exposure to diseases that breed in wet soils.

Potato irrigation: ‘You must have a back-up plan’

It is critical to constantly keep your finger on the soil moisture when farming in the Sandveld. The low water holding capacity of the sand requires regular small doses of water. Many Sandveld farmers believe that the soil profile must be moist to a certain depth before planting. When the plant’s growth rate later increases and the foliage develops, you can be sure that the thirsty plant has been taken care of.

For potatoes, Niël recommends pivots with a 12 mm spray package, which can deposit 12 mm of water in 24 hours.

“You’re most likely going to use less than that, but it’s important for us to also take the extremes into account,” explains Niël. “We want to know how much water is needed if there is a heat wave, and then we want to set up a plan-B in case of any problems. Just a day or two of interruption in irrigation at the wrong time can lead to huge loss.”

The farm’s water is pumped from boreholes into dams and then on to 32 Agrico centre pivots. Once here, a new challenge awaits. The notoriously corrosive water of the Sandveld can be extremely damaging to an irrigation system. Therefore, they placed PVC pipes on top of the galvanised pipes of the centre pivots. That way the water does not run through the structure itself, and the system is protected.

How to cut costs in challenging times

According to Johan, it is more critical than ever that farmers prioritise cost savings and ensure that their production cycle performs optimally.

That is why all the centre pivots and pumps on their farms are equipped with Agrico Web Control and VSDs (variable speed drives). The system varies the pressure according to the exact need at any given time and leads to great power savings, especially where there are height differences in the topography.

The management team saw the use for Web Control when power outages were first introduced years ago. Physically checking each centre pivot after each centre pivot was just too demanding, and they sought a remote-controlled solution.

“We are excited about Web Control. The system helps us save power and improve efficiency. Now we have a holistic view of our irrigation – we can monitor, manage and document it as it plays out.”

The value of an irrigation team that knows what’s what 

There are farmers who believe that service is just as important as the quality of the product itself. This is one of the reasons why Stephan & Son has been working with Agrico all these years.

“As farmers, we have to make sure that we produce profitably in the midst of so many challenges. When it comes to the equipment and complicated technology, we need good support.”

With decades of experience, Johan feels that just as they specialise in potatoes, Agrico “specialises in irrigation systems”. That is why the relationship works so well.

“Today, Agrico is an advanced company with branches all over the country, and strong central administration and support from Bellville and Lichtenburg. We know that Agrico is present – they spend the time to solve problems and it feels like they understand what farmers are going through and what their unique challenges are.”

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