The Zetler Farms employ techniques from Israel to ensure sustainability
By Chandrea Serebro
The Zetler Family farms, located in Cape Town, are leading the way in innovation by using techniques on their farms learned in Israel. In doing so, they are making great strides in ensuring sustainability and saving water in these times of drought in Cape Town. The modern Zetlers come from a line of Zetlers who saw the value in innovation and in learning from others. “Mendel Zetler came to South Africa, settling in Stellenbosch to become a trader,” says Jeffrey Zetler, grandson of Mendel. His seven children all settled there as well. His son, Sam Zetler, was also a trader, doing business with the farmers in the area, which prompted him to buy a farm 8km outside of Stellenbosch. “When Sam arrived on the farm in Stellenbosch, the area was still fairly untamed and relatively wild. No, we are not talking about lions roaming the veld. We are talking about a farm where there was no infrastructure to speak of – almost non-existing roads, and no creature comforts as we know it.” But he tamed it, and the Zetler family are still in the business of taming the wild.
Soon it became S Zetler and Sons Farming Enterprises, as it is today. He started farming with grapes, vegetables, and strawberries, and after he married Josie Zetler (nee Silke), all five of their sons – Michael, Herschel, Leonard, Dennis, and Jeffrey – became involved with farming matters and soon they began buying more and more farms. As time went by, the brothers used newer technology for farming, recognising the need for modernisation and new techniques. They all travelled overseas to obtain new methods. There they found ways to enable a longer shelf life of fruit and vegetables for the export market – “at present, the Zetlers are the only sweetcorn packers who export sweetcorn for the English and Swiss markets, by sea. This has a three-week shipping time to destination, and the sweetcorn can then still be fresh for two weeks in the supermarkets.” And we can be proud here at home, too, as in South Africa most of the sweetcorn found on shelves comes from the Zetler farms.
They also learned cutting edge technologies from Israeli innovations, as Israel is the pioneer in drip irrigation and a leader in the field of fertilisation, which the Zetlers use on their farms.“S Zetler & Sons Farming Enterprises and its management are acutely aware that our region, and Cape Town, is water scarce and, as such, needs to be vigilant when consuming water. For this reason, we employ the following strategies to use as little of our precious resources as possible. We plan our crops water requirement on a weekly basis using current weather data to forecast exactly how much water the plants need. Precise amounts of water are given through drip irrigation (which is more efficient than overhead irrigation), and we use a plastic mulch to cover our strawberry beds. This prevents evaporation and saves a lot of water.”
These Israeli techniques are particularly efficient when it comes to strawberries. Israel is leading the way in developing new varieties and new farming methods to create year-round crops – which the Zetlers employ. “Between the two companies S Zetler & Sons and Limberlost (owned by the late Michael Zetler, the eldest brother, whose three sons are running the company at present), we produce 60% of the strawberries for the major retailers in South Africa, as well as most of the smaller supermarkets.” New varieties of strawberries are being developed in Israel, America, and Spain, and the availability of strawberries has been extended to 12 months of the year due to the many different varieties from all over the world.
Recently, Jeffrey took one of his loyal workers to see how the Israeli farmers farm with strawberries and how different methods are being used. New methods are being developed in Israel all the time to reduce the use of pesticides. One innovation has been the introduction of ‘good insects’ into the growth area, allowing them to destroy harmful pests. When Jeffrey and his colleague were in Israel, they went to visit an Israeli company called Biobee, who are world specialists in biological pest control. On Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, BioBee breeds beneficial insects and mites for biological pest control and bumblebees for natural pollination in greenhouses and open fields. In Israel, BioBee products have enabled sweet-pepper farmers to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 75 percent. BioBee exports eight different species of biological control agents, plus pollinating bumblebees, to 32 nations from Japan to Chile.
The Zetlers import the predatory mites developed by BioBee, which eat the kind of mites that attack the plants of the strawberry, and use them as successful pest control instead of insecticides as part of their Pest Management Plan which aims to combat pests as naturally as is possible. “S Zetler & Sons Farming Enterprises continues to pursue a strategy of reducing our dependence on agricultural chemicals. We are in the process of implementing a comprehensive Integrated Pest Management Plan. Firstly, we employ scouts who identify which pests are present and the level of infestation. We then act according to this level and not according to a fixed schedule. We introduce natural insect predators to control pest populations such as thrips, aphids, and red spider (two-spotted) mites. We also routinely review our use of conventional pesticides in an attempt to replace them with newer, effective, and target-specific alternatives, where possible. We prefer to optimise plant health and employ disciplined field hygiene methods as a way to naturally combat the plant pathogens which typically thrive in weaker fields.” All the methods employed by the Zetlers on their many farms aim to make the farms more sustainable and better-equipped to head into the future, all the while gaining new techniques – many from Israel – to help get them there.