Harvest season for Mzansi’s rooibos industry is in full swing and is expected to yield great volumes this year. According to Marthane Swart, a member of the secretariat for the South African Rooibos Council, the good harvest outlook is thanks to excellent rains experienced over the past two years.
“The industry is in the middle of harvesting season and the rooibos is looking good. Farmers are expecting good volumes this year,” she says on this episode of the Farmer’s Inside Track podcast’s weekend edition.
Between 17 000 to 20 000 tonnes of rooibos is harvested in South Africa per year, of which about 50% is kept for the local market. The rest is exported to Japan and Germany. the Netherlands, UK and USA. “This is our local drink, so we always want to make sure that we have enough volumes in our domestic market.”
According to Swart, the industry employs about 8 000 agricultural workers. It is one of those industries where most of the labour gets done by hand. “For us it is about jobs, it is absolutely amazing in South Africa to be able to [provide] employment to so many people.”
Swart shares some insights into the rooibos industry. Rooibos, she explains, is only grown in the Cederberg mountain region in the Western Cape. “Rooibos likes that place, so you would really struggle to try and grow rooibos somewhere else. It grows in this rugged mountainous area and the winters [there] are really cold and the summers very hot,” she says.
The area in which rooibos grows is part of the Cape floral kingdom, an international recognised biodiversity hotspot and one of six floral kingdoms in the world. Swart points out that while it may be the smallest globally, it is the only one that is within the borders of one country.
“[The Cape floral kingdom} is so rich in plant species that we get 8 700 species in that area of the Cederberg and the Cape floral kingdom. This is more than a tropical rain forest. There are so many soil types, micro climates and so many plants evolve there, including rooibos.”
From shrub to cup
If you have wondered about the process, just know that it all starts with a tiny seed.
Swart explains that rooibos seeds are really tiny. It is quite amazing that a seed so small could result in a plant that is so robust and grows in harsh conditions, she says. The seeds lie in the sand, making it quite tricky to collect. However, in the olden days ants would harvest the seeds for their own food, storing it in their antheaps. People would then collect the seeds from the antheaps.
“After it is harvested, [the seeds are] germinated with great care in nurseries. It stays in the nursery until about March and then when the rains come in June or August, the rooibos gets replanted by hand into fields,”” Swart says.
Hereafter, the rooibos will grow for about 18 months until it is fully mature (about 1.5m high).
When the plant is ready to be harvested – usually between December, January, February – the branches are cut off, about 50cm above the ground. These cuttings are taken to the processing area and where they are cut into uniform lengths of about 1.5 to 5 mm pieces.
“At this point the rooibos is not red, it’s green. [From here} the process starts to make it into the beautiful [red] brew we know. The cut rooibos is made wet and is left in heaps, sweating for 10 to 14 hours at temperatures between 34°C to 38°C.”. During this process the fermentation tales place and what’s always extraordinary for me is that nothing is added to the rooibos. There are enzymes in the plant that naturally helps this fermentation process.”
It is during this sweating exercise that rooibos gets its dark amber colour and flavour that tea lovers are used to. From hereon out, it is spread out thinly onto tea courts where it air dries. Once dry, the tea is collected and transported to the processing facility.
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