I was privileged to attend the “switching on” of the rooftop solar power system at Blue Jay Farm, Stellenbosch, owned by the Timberlea Farming Trust. We have an interesting situation in the agricultural industry in South Africa at the moment. With projected electricity hikes at 8% per year (and possibly more in future) farmers are seriously starting to thinking about the financial case of continuing to run power hungry and inefficient cooling rooms for fruit. European retailers at the end export supply chain are also starting to put pressure on suppliers at farm level to become more sustainable. In addition, the last few years have seen a dramatic decrease in the prices of Solar PV panels. Farmers are now “seeing the light” and thinking seriously about renewable energy options. Solar power is an obvious choice as we have an abundance of sunlight in South Africa. It’s also a fairly simple technology compared to some other types of renewable energy sources (wind, bio digesters, hydro, etc).
Blue Jay is one of the several farms installing rooftop solar systems and it’s exciting to see this kind of “sustainable thinking” starting to take off. The solar panel system (by SolarWorld), which is situated on the north facing roofs of their sheds, will supplement 30% of the farm’s electricity consumption with 127Kwp of electricity. This will save them in the region of R153 000 per year.
What impressed me about Timberlea is their holistic approach to sustainability. There are other much larger farms implementing much larger systems around the Western Cape but for Timberlea it’s not just a business case. Yes, it makes financial sense which is ultimately a powerful driver, but they have other environmental and social systems in place which set an example for excellent practice.
I had a tour around the packing house with Operations Manager, Sandra Jeffery, and was given the opportunity to watch the ladies sorting the different fruits – not as simple as it seems. Two important truths I learnt: firstly “pink lady” apples are priced according to the concentration of red pigmentation, however they all taste the same (I hope I haven’t given away a trade secret); secondly, only women are employed to sort fruit as they are better multi-taskers and better able to discern the good quality fruit than men (yes men, t’is true!). Not surprisingly the best of the Grade 1 fruit goes to UK retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose as well as Woolworths in SA. The one’s we see on our supermarket shelves are much less sparkly though hopefully they still taste as good. In the past, any fruits that were deemed “unsellable” were discarded but these days they are pulped into the freshest fruit juice that is also preservative free (and completely yummy). I watched the pulping machine as it squeezed out as much liquid as possible, leaving a trail of mushed up bits of apple peel and pips (I have to say it but it looked a little like something else). This uh... mushy stuff is then used to make compost for the fields.
As a social project they have provided employment for a gaggle of geese who scour the fields for pests and tasty morsels. No need for harmful pesticides. They generate a lot of “waste” paper from the backings of the packet labels but discovered that their team of hungry worms is particularly happy to eat up this paper and turn it into soil enriching nutrients.
In terms of “human” social sustainability they pay their workers well and have incentive and commission schemes in place which increase productivity. They also provide an extra mural programme for their children (particularly in maths and languages) in a media centre at the back of the farm. There is even a chess club.
The mayor of Stellenbosch made an inspiring (off the cuff) speech before the switch was flipped on the solar system and the power began to roll. He explained that the Stellenbosch Municipality has a vision for the area to be one the “greenest” municipalities in the country. “It’s all about partnerships,” he said. “Let us work together. Government tend to be part of the problem because we are highly regulated. But we have an open mind and are moving away from that kind of thinking in order to be part of the solution”. Before the factory workers sang Nkosi Sikelele to end the celebration (which indeed it was), he commended Timberlea for being one of the pioneers in helping the municipality to realise this dream. This is the start of putting our priorities (nature and sustainability) in the right order; of “putting our geese in a row”.
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My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.