Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
- It is Anthorn Farming’s quality produce, high yields and basic production practices that make it stand out among its peers. All of this led to owner, Murray Thompson, being awarded the Syngenta National Potato Producer of the Year Award for 2022.
- Murray bases his farming practices on three pillars: an excellent workforce, good fundamentals on farmland, and good partnerships off the farm.
- To Murray, seed potato production held the biggest reward.
- Murray’s seed potatoes are marketed under the WesGrow brand in different tuber sizes in 25 kg bags.
- Anthorn Farming’s main approach to sustainability is based on extended crop rotation, where little strain is put on their predominantly sandy soil containing 7 to 10% clay.
Anthorn Farming, situated in the Christiana area, in the Free State, is reaping the rewards of sustainable potato production. This well-oiled machine manages to stay ahead of the potato game, thanks to a balanced team that acts as the driving force. It is Anthorn Farming’s quality produce, high yields and basic production practices that make it stand out among its peers. All of this led to owner, Murray Thompson, being awarded the Syngenta National Potato Producer of the Year Award for 2022.
Anthorn Farming produces 300 ha of potatoes annually, which includes table and seed potatoes grown in co-operation with WesGrow Potatoes. The farm’s average yield is 70 tons per hectare and the crop is grown under full centre-pivot irrigation with water sourced from the Vaal River.
Pillars of success
Murray bases his farming practices on three pillars: an excellent workforce, good fundamentals on farmland, and good partnerships off the farm. He credits the farm’s success to his workforce and management team. He firmly believes that Anthorn’s reliability and consistency in producing potatoes of a higher quality earned them the reputation of a commendable operation that clients can trust. Well- managed soil as well as the power of their support network (suppliers, technical support and business partners) also play a role.
Murray says these pillars make up the higher levels of their pyramid with a flat management system as the foundation. His people-management skills are all about rewarding people for owning up to their mistakes and finding solutions as opposed to a strong disciplinarian approach. “We strive for clear communication in a fearless environment where no one needs to be apprehensive about taking responsibility.”
Another fundamental feature is Anthorn’s focus on keeping production methods as simple as possible in order to execute plans perfectly. “An average plan that is executed perfectly is much better than a great plan with average execution.”
Where it all started
Murray grew up on the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme and attended boarding school in Cape Town. He obtained a degree in economics and business management at the University of Pretoria (UP) after which he joined the non-ferrous metal trading industry in Johannesburg and later in Germany and China. He was employed by a German trading entrepreneur, Volker Schütte, from whom he learned his people-management skills and strict financial management approach.
Murray returned to South Africa in 2012 at the age of 27. His father, Kit, an exceptional cattleman and owner of Rutland Bonsmaras, passed away shortly after his return. Left to take up the reins, Murray decided to sell his father’s Bonsmara stud. He wanted to focus on potato production instead of running a mixed farming operation and invested in potatoes because it seemed like the “most exciting and financially rewarding crop per hectare”.
To him, seed potato production held the biggest reward. His main attention initially centred around the basics of planting potatoes, and the simplification of the business ultimately formed the root of his success.
The Anthorn brands
Approximately 15 to 25% of the farm’s total yield goes to seed potatoes, with every circle planted registered as a seed potato block. The seed is selected based firstly on tuber size and then on quality, ensuring the best possible planting material for seed potato customers. Seed potatoes that are too large or have defects of any kind are washed, sorted and marketed as Anthorn Table Potatoes.
Murray’s seed potatoes are marketed under the WesGrow brand in different tuber sizes in 25 kg bags. This includes 250, 400, 600 and 850 tuber counts per 25 kg bag. His table potato crop is packaged in 7 and 10 kg bags and goes to either the fresh produce market (45%) or is marketed directly by the Grow Group (Botha Roodt Market Agency) and the RSA Potato Seed Exchange.
Developing new cultivars
Murray says although cultivar development is a time-consuming and expensive process that can take up to ten years to finalise, it remains the best way to solve potato production challenges, rather than making use of fertilisation or chemicals. South African producers must therefore stay abreast of the latest industry technology, which includes cultivar development.
Anthorn Farming plants various cultivars, with Mondial, Sifra and Panamera comprising some 80% of the hectares planted, and the remainder made up of Sababa, Tyson and processing varieties. About 15 cultivars are trialled on the farm every year.
Murray says when it comes to developing new cultivars, WesGrow works hard at being a market leader in seed production through innovation and integrity. Their focus is thus on sustainable farming practices through the development of better cultivars with the highest marketable yield, the best skin finish, decreased use of fertiliser, improved crop protection, and fresh water. “To keep diseases such as blight and scab under control, cultivar selection is at least as, if not more, important than the crop protection methods used.”
He says when these attributes are listed, every cultivar has its own strength and weaknesses in each aspect. “Mondial, for instance, is an open variety that has been around for a long time and is regarded as somewhat of a benchmark. The reality, however, is if you regard this matrix of what farmers want to achieve – marketable yield, water usage, fertilisation use and crop protection requirements – it is not necessarily the top choice.” It ultimately depends on each individual producer’s requirements.
Sifra has a beautiful skin finish and for many pre-packers it is seen as the benchmark, although over the last year it has been less so for a few climate-related reasons. According to him, Panamera has an adequate skin finish, a low fertiliser requirement and is highly blight-resistant, which he is very excited about since blight is one of the more devastating potential problems and a costly issue to control.
Tyson is a nice short grower which bulks early, resulting in less water being used. “Sababa has a high dry matter content, so it has a processing potential quality to it as well, which is also good as it makes bigger tubers which make it chip well. Each one of these cultivars has pros and cons. It depends, however, on what a farmer is trying to achieve.”
Murray says at the end of the day, WesGrow wants to produce a cultivar that best serves clients and its goal is to offer a leading variety in every sector of the industry – fresh, processing and chipping.
Anthorn Farming’s main approach to sustainability is based on extended crop rotation, where little strain is put on their predominantly sandy soil containing 7 to 10% clay. This is to ensure healthy microbial life and to avoid soil-borne diseases on seed potatoes.
Murray says the main objective with the long crop rotation (seven-year cycle) is to always get the cleanest seed to clients and to produce a superior product to ensure a good- quality table potato. Once potatoes have been harvested, semi-irrigated maize is planted to predominantly use the remaining fertiliser in the soil. Grass is planted just after emergence of the maize, which serves as a windbreak for the grass. These fields are left to rest for five to six years, allowing the soil to recover properly.
The growth period for seed potatoes is a maximum of 115 days from planting. A third of the crop is planted in November and two-thirds in January. Harvesting takes place from March to August. Soil preparation starts at the beginning of October when Anthorn Farming fumigates soil with a plough for nematode control. Planting starts three to four weeks later at a depth of 10 cm.
The soil will be ploughed again before the planters do their work, followed by ripping to make rows. A planter is used on these rows to deploy nitrogen and also marks where farmworkers should cast the seed by hand. Another planter comes in afterwards to fertilise the tubers and they rip again between the rows two days later. They will continue ripping as needed, depending on rainfall. They ridge the potatoes three to four weeks after emergence to get more soil on top of potato walls.
“The depth at which one plants is a trade-off between the soil on top of the tuber, allowing for greater yield, and that of getting faster emergence in hot soils,” he says. Chemical sprays are applied once or twice a week and fertiliser once every week. According to Murray, these programmes are very prescriptive and set up in such a way that they are mostly preventive, rather than remedial. About three weeks after planting they start rogueing every field at least once a week continuously. This is all to ensure the best possible seed quality for producers. – Christal-Lise Muller, Plaas Media