Eating my words is delicious
Two weeks ago, I was scribbling about fresh produce - sweet melons in particular. Upon publication, the head of this column's Big Fancy Words Department opined that that particular piece was, as usual, a mightily edifying and thoroughly percipient contribution to the nation's intellectual discourse. But then she suggested that I actually knew very little about the business of growing and selling fresh food and might benefit from a bit of practical exposure to this world.
I thought about this very novel suggestion and then agreed this might actually be a good idea. So it came to pass that I left my ivory tower to travel with Jaco from RSA Market Agents - the melon expert - at some ungodly hour of the morning to visit the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market in some unspeakable part of the city's underbelly.
The Johannesburg market is just one of a whole bunch of markets all over the country to which farmers deliver their fruit and vegetables, but it is the biggest.
It is a huge, sprawling marketplace that swarms with people milling around in the early hours like so many worker ants loading, packing, unpacking and delivering, buying and selling all manner of fresh produce. Perhaps best of all, it's an almost complete free-for-all. Anyone can try to sell their mealies or naartjies or artichokes or whatever through one of the market agents. And anyone can rock up and buy a single pocket of potatoes or several truckloads of pawpaws.
On the day I visited, there were lines of Mozambican-registered trucks being loaded with vegetables that were then going to be shipped all the way to Maputo and beyond. Their presence there that day elicited no particular interest from the market regulars because these people and their trucks were, apparently, there just about every day.
Walking around the market's various sprawling halls guided by Jaco, I scribbled all sorts of information I never knew I didn't know, and that I am not entirely sure I will ever be able to use. As is my wont, I took a particular interest in the potato section as this is my very favourite vegetable. I have never met a potato I didn't like and I cannot imagine life without them: be they served as slap chips or crisps, be they baked, mashed or roasted.
I learnt at the market, for instance, that potatoes are not what they used to be; that many of the potatoes we eat in South Africa are things called either BP1 or BP13 and that the "BP" stands for "Buffelspoort", not because that lovely area of North West is a particular potato-growing region, but because that is where the Agricultural Research Council has a research farm that bred the things. BP13s are good for mashing but not BP1s which do, however, make great slap chips.
Today we eat a lot of Mondial potatoes because, not only are they the Jacques Kallises of Potato-dom (meaning that they're all-rounders); they are also pretty resistant to scab - which is the great scourge of the potato-growing business.
Through Jaco, I was introduced to "the king of carrots" and various agricultural luminaries who are legends for their ability to consistently grow and sell tons of quality lettuces, apples and turnips and what have you. Mr Carrot King's son told me how they produced 200 tons of carrots, not per month or per week, but every single day - from 720 hectares near Tarlton on the West Rand. Surrounded by mountains of ZZ2 tomatoes, Jaco's Tomato Guy reeled off such astonishing figures - things like how he sold 50000 boxes of tomatoes a day - that I was sure he was making the numbers up just to show off.
Also at the market, I finally figured out who those nice people at Wildeklawer are (the ones who used to sponsor Griquas rugby): they grow onions, and plenty of them.
The market determines prices and prices change all the time but I was struck by how the big producers (and, Jaco said, big farmers are getting bigger all the time) invested in their brands.
This is not necessarily great news for emerging farmers but anyone can become a buyer - and the Johannesburg market has been instrumental in fostering and sustaining entrepreneurs who buy and hawk fruits and vegetables. And, you might not realise this, but the bag of oranges being touted to you at the robots were probably on the tree more recently than those in your big supermarket.