Friday, February 3, 2023

Chicory: Deeply rooted in South African soil

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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Cultivated since the late 1800s in the Eastern Cape, chicory serves a niche market in South Africa. Its most important characteristic is the ability to enhance and retain the aroma and taste of coffee, and to strengthen the mixture.

The origin of chicory is generally accepted to be in central Eurasia, more or less where the present Russia is located. Chicory was first cultivated in South Africa by Robert Thornton-Smith who imported seeds from the Netherlands. It was planted for commercial use for the first time in 1895 in Alexandria, a small farming community in the Eastern Cape.

Chicory SA Ltd was established on 1 October 1993. The industry’s production region region comprises a vast area stretching from Patensie to Cookhouse. “The crop currently consists of approximately 40% crop under irrigation and 60% under dryland production,” says Lodewyk (Loddie) Greyling, agricultural manager and field agriculturist at Chicory SA.

Read more on how to manage popular crops here.

Plant structure

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) can be described as a dicotyledonous plant with large, broad basal leaves. The plants closest related to it are the sunflower and the ordinary marigold (daisy). The lifetime of a chicory plant, according to Greyling, is two years and is harvested at roughly at one third of its life-cycle.

The composition of chicory includes mainly polysaccharide inulin, fructose and glucose which form approximately 76% of the dry matter, protein (approximately 5%), fat, ash, fibre, liquid and a molecule called lactucopicrin. Greyling notes that it is this molecule which causes the bitter taste for which chicory is well known.

“The lactucopicrin molecule is destroyed during the drying process, and especially during the roasting process. The chicory then loses its bitter taste completely. During the roasting process, the inulin is partly or wholly converted to laevulose or D-fructose, which is then caramelised to a varying degree.”

It is a versatile plant, as the roots and leaves are processed in the following ways:


  • Coffee mixtures.
  • Pure chicory drinks.
  • Chocolates.
  • Breakfast foods.
  • Pet food.
  • Stock feed that can replace maize, provided the protein is supplemented.

Read more about the legal implications of plant gene editing here.


In South Africa, the leaves are used as fodder, while in New Zealand and the United States (US) particular chicory varieties with lush leaves are established for grazing purposes.

Production matters

The following production principles are basic guidelines shared by Greyling, on behalf of Chicory SA.

Soil preparation

  • Moisture retention is of vital importance during soil cultivation. Cultivation of the crop in excessively wet or shallow soils, must be avoided.
    • Avoid cultivation in strong wild conditions, which decreases drying out of the soil.
    • Perform deep tilling and ploughing (deep loosening of soils) beforehand.
    • Avoid unnecessary compaction by adjusting the pressure of the tractor wheels.
    • Tine cultivation before planting is necessary for the aeration and levelling of the seedbed. Tine
    • implements (Kongskilde) mounted with rollers, offer an effective
    • clod-breaking effect.
    • Power harrows are highly suitable for the preparation of a fine seedbed.

Erosion control

  • Protect fields with slopes of 4% and higher against water erosion. Fields that are steeper than 12% should by no means be established under chicory.
  • Suitable months in which to establish windbreaks, are September to October.
  • Windbreaks – established no more than 25m apart – are essential in sandy areas. If possible, they should be planted in a north-southerly direction.

Read more about the agro-processing of root crops here.

Seed planting

The best results are obtained from pneumatic precision fine-seed planters. Depending on the soil type, the desired planting depth should be between 2 and 5mm. The planting speed should be approximately 3km/h (walking speed). The desired plant population is between 160 000 and 220 000 plants per hectare.

The desired inter-row spacing when using a precision planter, is 45 to 55cm (22 222 to 18 182 running meters/ha). The ideal intra-row spacing is between 7 and 10cm to allow for sufficient space for root development (100 to 140 plants/10m row length).

Provided enough soil moisture is available, the ideal planting time for sandy coastal regions (dryland) is from February to May. Upcountry dryland plantings are mainly dependent on sufficiently available soil moisture and can be planted from March to mid-September. It is not recommended to plant drylands after September, since exceptionally hot periods must be avoided.

Frost occurs mostly in irrigated areas, and planting should commence in these areas from mid- to late August. It is not advisable to plant chicory after November, as the harvesting process would have to be completed before maturity, so as to coincide with the closing of the processing department, which could adversely affect yields.

To avoid infestation of the young plant with tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), it is recommended that the seed be treated just before planting with Gaucho® imidacloprid. The insecticide controls the thrips which spread the virus.

Insect and fungi control

One should not apply the same products year after year, as insects can build up resistance. Insecticides should therefore be rotated. Young chicory is susceptible to insect damage and thorough protective measures are required. Treatment of seed with Gaucho® is vital. After germination the use of bait such as Bonus® quinalphos on the rows, is effective against beetles, other soil insects and cutworms.

For the control of sucking insects such as aphids, thrips and red spider mite (Tetranychus urticae), systemic insecticides such as methamidophos and monocrotophos are effective. It also controls soft-bodied insects such as bollworm. Synthetic pyrethroids such as cypermethrin are cost-effective and also effective against bollworm. Bait treated with endosulfan is effective on cutworm, which is more nocturnal. It is therefore important to put the bait out in late afternoons.

Initial tests with insect traps have been successful and should be effective in certain areas. The timing of trap placement is determined by the life-cycles of insect species. Vandalism and trap theft are limiting their use near residential areas, but the economic figures and the conservation aspect can be beneficial for producers in the long run.

An excellent new product to curb many types of fungi – black rot (Thielaviopsis basicola) and soft brown rot (Fusarium spp.) – and bacteria is Des-O-Germ™ SP VEG. It is a fungicide which was initially developed to protect export fruit and vegetables against harmful pathogens. Due to the systemic characteristics of its combined active ingredients (quaternary ammonium chlorides), this product can be applied in open field conditions, meaning that a preventative spray programme can now be applied. It is 100% biodegradable and complies to hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) and European System Related to Good Agricultural Practice (EUREPGAP) principles.

Various organic and other insecticides and fungicides are available, and trials are being undertaken to determine their effectiveness.

Irrigation management

With a stand of 160 000 to 180 000 plants per hectare, chicory requires approximately 75 to 90mm of water per month, increasing to 120 to 140mm per month for the last two months before harvesting. With a stand of 200 000 or more plants per hectare, the application figure should be adjusted accordingly.

Growers should beware of over-irrigating, as harmful soil pathogens are stimulated by excessively wet conditions. The largest portion of the growth season in the irrigation area takes place in summer, and producers should therefore plan their irrigation schedules sensibly.

Field compaction should be avoided after irrigation. Cultivation using a tine implement to break up the crust, is crucial in areas where the soil compacts easily. Do not loosen the soil too deep. A depth of 50 to 75mm is more than sufficient.

Where soils compact easily, magnesium levels might be too high. On soils exhibiting a balanced nutritional level, the compaction of the crust should not be problematic. Texture also plays a key role. Cultivating chicory under flood irrigation is not recommended. Continuous trials have revealed unacceptably high losses due to the increased pathogen activities related to flood irrigation.

Harvesting and delivery

  • The large bulk delivery bags normally hold between 400 and 440kg of product, and producers must ensure that no stones are delivered along with their chicory.
  • Leaves, black rot and all rotten portions must be removed during harvesting.
  • Farm workers must be properly trained to know exactly where the leaves should be cut off from the roots – at the crown of the root, just where the leaves emerge.
  • Applications for deliveries should be carried out realistically.
  • Chicory will only be taken in on Saturdays under special circumstances and only once proper notice has been
  • given. If harvesting on a Friday is inevitable, the chicory must be kept in a shelter, or be stored in the shade to avoid wilting until it can be delivered on the Monday.
  • Producers are responsible for the delivery of chicory at the drying plant. The weighbridge at Chicory SA is 24m long, weighing up to 80 tons per load. During weighing of the truck, a sample of the load will be taken to determine the percentage soil and total soluble solids (TSS) of the delivered load.
  • All producers must complete and return the application forms for delivery by the date specified. Failure to do so can result in penalties being applied in future.

The future of chicory

Chicory SA continuously invests in research, experiments and the development of improved production methods, explains Greyling. “We produce and process a unique product which is increasingly finding a place in the consumer market, and it is especially the health qualities of chicory that will ensure the survival of the business.” – Carin Venter, Plaas Media

Guidelines on dosage applications of the abovementioned procedures, including fertilisation, weed control, spraying operation and products as well as crop rotation, are available from Chicory SA. For enquiries, contact Loddie Greyling on 046 653 0048 or their website at

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