South Africa: quad bike patrol gets the better of fruit fly pests

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South Africa: quad bike patrol gets the better of fruit fly pests

A South African father and son quad bike team are proving they can reach the parts of orchards which helicopter chemical spraying misses. We caught up with the dynamic duo at to find out more about what a typical day entails.

It is not everyone's idea of bliss waking up at 4am while it's still dark with only a cup of diesel strength coffee to keep you going, but for quad bike rider Jannie Zulch it's a way of life.

He and his 23-year-old son Johan visit farms within a 50km (31 mile) radius of their home town of Wellington, Western Cape, to spray orchards with a range of substances to control fruit flies, weeds, mildew and other nasties.

They check the oil and coolant levels of their truck, or bakkie as South Africans call it, and set off to the first farm. The trailer - complete with Honda 500 cc quad bikes, spray equipment and winches - will have been packed the night before.

It's crucial they start work at the break of dawn when it is light but still cool.

This is especially true when it comes to spraying the high glucose fruit fly bait as it's necessary to spray plants before temperatures rise.

"When it's too hot the fruit flies aren't very active. They are active early in the morning and in the late afternoon. We have to work when it is cool due to the fact that the bait we use is high in glucose and if it does get in contact with the fruit when the sun is strong then the heat burns a mark on the fruit," explains Zulch, 47.

A full day

They normally work from about 5am when they introduce themselves to the farmer to find out what section of fruit needs spraying. The trailer is unloaded and the spray pump tanks filled with water and the correct chemical mix.

Zulch and his son will talk on their mobiles to co-ordinate which parts of the orchard they've done and to check they are using the right chemical levels.

By 10.30am they will knock off for a well earned break and resume work again from 4pm until 8.30pm.

However,when it's busy they often visit another farm in the mid-morning to help with snail control by distributing pellets or in the early afternoon head off to another holding to do some weed killing.

Zulch with his son and a third colleague, Petrus Jacobs, can cover up to 260 hectares a day, which depending on the size of the farm, means it's possible for them to visit up to five farms a day.

The only thing which stops them from carrying out the job day in day out is a death in the family or when it rains.

Bending over backwards

His Agri Quad business is thriving with about 50 different customers and the potential to grow it still further, although Zulch says he's happy to keep it as a family run affair.

He's convinced spraying from a quad bike gives the farmer a better degree of control than airborne spraying via helicopter.

"Some of the table grapes, nectarines and peaches are covered with nylon to prevent birds pecking at them and as protection against hailstroms. You can't get penetrate this spraying from a helicopter," explains Zulch.

"On a quad bike your are more flexible and can cover the ground, we can put a chemical or bait exactly where the farmer wants it and for fruit flies we can put it on top of the fruit which is generally where they are."

The job is physically demanding with the potential for backache, although Zulch insists once he and his son are in their stride any aches and pains start to fade.

"It gets hot and your body does take some hammering from shaking around the whole day. It is quite tiring but we get used to it," he says.

It's also vital to have a degree of flexibility, especially when spraying table grapes as it's necessary to drive under the frames holding up the fruit.

This can be a little perilous as vine shoots are often hanging down, or worse wires from the trellis, which Zulch says can hurt you quite badly if you aren't careful.

"Sometimes you are lying on your back to get underneath the fruit to spray them. Plums, nectarines and citrus are generally the easiest. Oranges become a bit of a problem close to harvesting as the branches tend to bend down because of the weight of the fruit so you have a little less mobility."

Bike benefits

Another benefit with quad bikes is that it is possible to spray fruit all year round, which can't be done via helicopter.

"We can spray even when there are leaves on the fruit, plus we can work when the fruit is budding, whereas a helicopter can only operate in the winter when there aren't any leaves."

Zulch and his son work closely with the farmer to find out which blocks of fruit they will harvest and when, as that determines what chemical to use.

"We can only use one chemical during harvest time and we have to start using it a month prior to harvest  to prevent residue on the fruit."

At the end of the month the farmer gets a certificate stating what chemicals were used with registration numbers and active ingredients as well as a print out of each block.

"These two documents they submit when they have a Euro Gap or Global Gap audit. Our effectiveness has resulted in farmers being able to export up to 50% more of their crop," enthuses Zulch.

It's challenging yet satifying work and one of the main benefits is it's an open air job surrounded by great scenery.

"You are very close to nature - any time when I am in an orchard I appreciate it," says Zulch, who grew up on the family farm.

He studied at an agricultural college until he was 18, and was then conscripted to the army to do national service for two years before joining the South African police force.

However, the thought of returning to an agricultural job was never far away from his mind.  The idea to set up Agri Quad came after seeing how versatile this type of vehicle could be compared to a tractor.

"We are able to do everything a farmer can do with a tractor except plough and bush cut, but we are working on that," explains Zulch who set up the enterprise 10 years ago.

There is a skill to driving the bikes which can be notoriously unstable for the unitiated.

"Quad bikes can be quite dangerous, people think that with four wheels they can't fall over but we know where we can go and what we can do with them. "

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