Farm’s future hangs in the balance

Maria Swartz stands among the vegetable packing crates at Vorentoe Boerdery.

Kuils River’s last vegetable farm could close as early as next year if the drought doesn’t break soon, and it won’t be the only one, warns its owner, who says another dry winter will spell job losses, food-price hikes and farm closures.

Vorentoe Boerdery owner, Johannes Visser, said the farm is “right on the urban edge”, surrounded by malls and gated estates that have come to characterise the mushrooming suburbia north of the city. Much of the remaining agricultural land in the area is under vines.

Once-sprawling farmlands have been snatched up by developers. According to Langverwacht councillor Roelof Mare, the area once had about 25 farms; now there are less than half that number.

“We’ve got two pieces of land. Across the road we’ve got 25 to 35 hectares,” Mr Visser said.

“If we want to rezone this property for residential use, we would be allowed to do it. There is a possibility of that in the next few years.”

According to Mr Visser, what’s happening in South Africa is happening the world over – as populations increase and agricultural land is converted into homes, farming changes.

“Other countries are exploring hydroponics and hot houses. Holland is about as big as a quarter of the Free State but they produce masses of vegetables. The problem is not land, the problem is water.”

It’s water that will determine Vorentoe Boerdery’s immediate future: the drought has hit the farm hard. Potable water for farming was cut by 30 and later 40 percent this year, Mr Visser said. “We planted only about half of what we did last summer.”

He’s relieved he did not need to let go of his 120 permanent employees, but he has been unable to hire any seasonal workers.

“We’ve been on this farm for 35 years, and we’ve never experienced something like this,” he said.

But he fears worse could come, if the city has another warm, dry summer, like it has had for the past two years.

“Last winter, the rainfall was far below normal. We had two bad winters. For vegetable farming, you need the right amount of water and the right quality or the vegetables won’t grow well. The quality of the ground water at the moment is very bracken, and it is getting worse. I don’t know why. Perhaps there are too many boreholes in the residential areas.”

Mr Visser said farms get their water from big dams which need cold and rainy winters to fill up. The dams, Mr Visser said, fill up with melting snow from the mountains as well as the rain.

“We’ve got a crisis,” he said. “The real disaster will be next summer. If we have the same warm, dry winter as the last two winters, then next summer will be the real disaster. If, after this winter, the dams are still only 50 or 60 percent full, then the City will have to stop supplying the farms with water and keep it for drinking water.

“If we don’t get water next year, we will have to close the farm,” Mr Visser said. And many other farms will likely do the same.

“People will lose their jobs and vegetable prices will go through the roof because they will have to be bought from up country but what can I do?

“I can’t make it rain. Nature can be cruel. I’m 57 and I have never experienced something like this. And there are still people walking around not knowing there is a crisis.”

Mayor Patricia de Lille, at a media briefing last month, said the dam levels were at 33 percent which means there is only about 100 days of drinking water left.

“With the last 10 percent of a dam’s water mostly not being usable, dam levels are effectively at 23 percent,” she said. “At the current draw-down rate, and with dam levels at an effective 23 percent, we could be looking at approximately 121 days of usable water left.”

Ms De Lille said the City had contingency plans should the drought continue for another winter. These include pumping winter water from the Berg River into Voelvlei Dam, extraction from the Table Mountain Group Aquifer, water reuse and desalination.

“Cape Town lies in a water-scarce region and climate change projections have seen lower-than-average rainfall in the past two winter seasons. The rainfall recorded at our Table Mountain and Steenbras gauge sites during 2015 and 2016 was among the lowest on our record of some 100 years,” she said.

And if the rain continues to stay away, water restrictions will become even more stringent. “If we should get to between 15 to 20 percent storage levels in the dams, we will increase the water restrictions measures and decrease water pressures in the network. At between 10 to 15 percent storage levels in the dams, we will implement intermittent supply in some areas, with stringent restriction measures.

“At below 10 percent storage levels in the dams, we will be providing a ‘lifeline’ water supply, which would involve minimal supply pressures, intermittent supply, and very stringent restriction measures,” she said.