Producing tomatoes on a commercial scale

Make a fresh start this summer by growing and selling tomatoes

Whether we call it Ushatini or pap and boerie with tomato relish, the key ingredient is tomatoes and there is almost not a sauce, soup, stew or salad us South Africans eat without it. Which is why more and more people are becoming tomato farmers of some sort – even growing tomatoes in their backyards.

The stats show that each South African consumes about 12 kilos of tomatoes per year (compared to 32 kilos per person in Europe). As a result, tomatoes are the second-most important vegetable commodity after potatoes, contributing ±24% of total vegetable production in our country.

The story of commercial tomato farmer Joel Nnyi Thivhafuni from Tshavumba Farm Produce shows that growing and selling tomatoes is not only lucrative but can also become a really big farming business. Joel, who used to be a teacher while farming on the side, was given his current land by his then principal in 2004.

Back then, the farm, which is close to the Zimbabwean border, was basically just bush. Joel de-bushed the land and turned it into a leading commercial tomato farm, which currently supplies to the likes of Tiger Brands and Rhodes Foods as well as to local businesses and stores. 

Joel attributes his success to working very hard and forming strategic partnerships. One such critical partnership he established, is with Laeveld Agrochem, who assisted him in eliminating the pest of whitefly, which causes damage to tomato plants and has a major effect on how much crops you produce.

What made all the difference for Joel was that an agronomist (an expert in the science of soil and production management) from Laeveld Agrochem visited his farm personally to gain complete understanding of what the issue was.  The agronomist recommended use of the insecticide Movento, advised Joel on how to use it, and stayed in touch throughout to make sure the problem was solved.

To make it in the tomato farming business, you don’t need to have as much land as Joel, and you don’t have to start this big. To give you an idea of just how little you need: one tomato seed produces a tomato plant, and a single tomato plant can produce up to 8 kilos of tomatoes in its lifetime!

Tomatoes are also not that difficult to grow as long as they have warm weather and fertile, well-drained soil. If you find yourself in a colder area of the country, you can even plant them indoors, in a sunny, north-facing spot, in trays or pots. Just make sure they are planted deep enough so they can grow strong roots, which produce larger, healthier plants.

The space you need depends on the variety of tomato you wish to grow. There are more than 200 varieties of tomato in South Africa, which can be divided into two main categories, namely the determinate tomato varieties and the indeterminate tomato varieties. 

The determinate varieties are bush-type plants, and, apart from the dwarf variety that needs a little less space, these varieties need to be planted about 45-60 centimetres apart and only grow up to a certain height. The indeterminate varieties are vining plants that can be planted a little closer to each other and keep on growing in height, until they are pruned or killed by frost.

Two of the most popular types of tomatoes in South Africa, which both fall within the indeterminate category, are beefsteak tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. The beefsteak variety produces the biggest fruit, but the cherry tomato variety is said to be the easiest to grow, especially for beginners. 

Whichever way, big or small, we can’t imagine a food recipe without a tomato or a world without people who grow tomatoes. So, how about you? For more info on tomato farming and all the new Niche Farming hype, follow @NicheFarmers on Facebook.