Backbone of the southern Cape rural economy

November 30, 2014

In the forest industry the smaller players are often overlooked, while the larger enterprises tend to get most of the attention. Yet the small entrepreneurs can make a significant contribution to the local economy.

by Theo Stehle

Elandskraal Timbers sawmill, Sedgefield.
Hanno and Nikki Smit.

One of these small businesses that has a big impact is Elandskraal Timbers near Sedgefield in the Garden Route, where Hanno and Nikki Smit manage a small commercial pine plantation estate complete with wet mill and dry mill.

Many years ago Hanno’s father had the foresight to buy land and plant it to radiata pine. After graduating with a building degree from the UPE in the early 1990s, Hanno’s passion for woodwork and the outdoors made him join his brother in making furniture from indigenous timber purchased at the southern Cape auctions. Soon a used WoodMizer was acquired and set up in the family’s Elandskraal plantation with young Hanno periodically camping out on the estate while sawing up the timber for their furniture business.

Managing the plantation
In 1994 this became a permanent occupation, when Hanno started managing the plantation and harvesting the first trees from thinnings. He never looked back. His passion for working hands-on with trees, being personally involved in all the stages of plantation management to the harvesting and processing of the timber, made him expand his tiny operation. After their marriage, his wife Nikki shared this passion with Hanno. The Elandskraal family farm of 150ha was gradually extended by further purchases and managing another plantation estate by agreement, bringing the total plantation area to 250ha, comprising mainly Pinus radiata in the sandy areas with some P. elliottii in the clayey soils.

Proud owners
Today Hanno and Nikki are the proud owners of a very well managed plantation. Neither of them have studied forestry, but they acquired the know-how by self-education and building on their own experience by trial and error. Both husband and wife are involved hands-on in all the plantation operations on a daily basis. Of course, they have a work team of 10 hand-picked local people with a supervisor-driver-cum-handyman to assist them. But it is not unusual to find Hanno and his wife with pruning saws in the plantation working alongside their team.

The plantation is managed for saw-timber on a 30-year rotation, with the first stands now reaching maturity. The plantation is divided into compartments of which the areas are known, and record is kept of date of planting/natural regeneration.

Where possible, mostly on the old dunes, radiata pine stands are regenerated naturally and spaced, otherwise they are planted, to an espacement of 2,7m x 3,0m, giving a count of 1 234 stems per hectare. Planting pits are prepared with an augur. Seedlings are purchased from the former MTO Forestry nursery at Karatara which is now privately owned.

Three thinning operations are carried out during the rotation, with the first thinning at four years. The trees are also pruned four times during the rotation, with the first being an access pruning. Hanno does the marking for thinning and pruning himself. He roughly follows the old State thinning prescriptions, but prefers to do his thinnings and prunings visually. His silviculture regime is quite intensive, with fire protection an important consideration. Invader vegetation control is carried out regularly, applying a combination of Mamba and Garlon with a knapsack spray can.

Fire protection consists of keeping the stands well thinned and pruned and clean of invader vegetation, and having firebreaks around high risk areas only. Elandskraal Timbers is a member of the local Fire Protection Association.

Some 66ha of indigenous forest and 10ha of wetland on the estate is managed for conservation, the main activity being invader vegetation control.

Timber has up to now been harvested only from thinnings, but clearfelling of the first mature stands will soon commence. Annual roundwood timber production is about 2 500m³, of which about 2 000m³ is sawn into planks on the estate, while the balance of about 300m³ of large roundwood saw-timber and about 200m³ of poles, is sold to other customers. Roundwood bought in from other private landowners will be phased out as the estate’s mature stands come into production. Pole production is not currently a management objective.

Elandskraal Timbers’ bushmill is operated by Hanno himself, using the same 30-year-old WoodMizer he started with on the estate about 20 years ago. His work team is periodically pulled in to assist with the handling of the timber.

A daily production of about 20m³ of roundwood is achieved. This means that in order to saw the annual roundwood volume of 2 000m³, Hanno personally has to saw for about 100 days a year, which is no mean feat considering that attending to plantation operations is virtually a full-time job. The WoodMizer is used for breaking down the logs, while another vertical saw used for breaking down small logs also doubles as a re-saw. These saws are complemented by an edging saw.

Most of the sawn timber is sold wet off the saw to sawmills and the industrial timber market as far away as the Boland, mainly for pallets, packaging and crates for the fruit industry. But believe it or not, Hanno even operates a dry-mill operation on the side. The timber is air-dried on site and milled into flooring, ceiling and decking boards whenever there is an opportunity.

The dry mill occupies part of a spacious mechanical workshop, in which Nikki’s retired father, Tony, attends to the daily maintenance and repairs of all mechanical equipment on the estate, including vehicles, logging machines and sawmilling equipment. He also takes care of the sharpening of saw blades. This makes the operation a truly self-sufficient family enterprise.

Balanced lifestyle
Although annual production is steadily increasing as the plantation reaches maturity, Hanno and Nikki are adamant that they will maintain the current scale of sawmilling operations to maintain a balanced lifestyle.

“Our quality of life is at stake, and we will refrain from expanding our operations even if it results in stands becoming over mature. Accumulated roundwood surpluses will simply be sold off,” said Hanno.

Apart from raising a family, the couple are extremely fit adventure sport enthusiasts, having taken part in contests locally and on other continents. They live in a modest, self-built timber home on the estate, far away from the pressures of modern, urban society, surrounded by the most beautiful landscape in the world.

Small enterprises like that of Hanno and Nikki Smit are the real backbone of rural economic development in the Western Cape, if not the country as a whole.

Nikki's father, Tony, in the workshop.
Hanno and members of his forestry team pruning.

*Published in August 2014

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