Mario and Kitty Du Plessis on Aurora Farm
Although wheat, oats and animal feed accounts for the largest amount of land used and the cattle, Limosin and Angus breeds, are an important part of the business, pear and apple sales are the bright new dawn for Aurora Farm, in Ceres in the Western Cape.
For Kitty du Plessis, the premature death of her husband Marius in February 2020, after a long battle with lung cancer, is just another challenge, albeit deeply personal and sad, that she and her sons have weathered over the years.
Speaking to Kitty and Mario, her eldest son who has taken over the operations at Aurora, one is immediately struck by the strength of character, commitment and passion for what they do.
“I used to work at Ceres Fruit Juices as Assistant Credit Manager and my husband Marius was a farm manager at Daytona Stud, the business that owned Aurora and neighbouring farms. When the original owner and his wife died soon after each other and their heirs, who lived abroad, wanted out, we discussed options with Ceres Fruit Growers (CFG) who helped us with the business plan for the purchase. And, because of Aurora’s location as a direct neighbour to the Nduli community in Ceres, there weren’t many competing buyers,” she says. The Du Plessis’s origin story is different from many local growers whose families have owned land in the region for many generations. Despite the lack of ancestral wealth and the safety net of generational knowledge transfer, the Du Plessis family of Aurora have won multiple awards over the years for their excellence in production.
In 2015 they were CFG’s Supplier of the Year and best Bon Chretien pear producer, an award won each consecutive year since and again in 2020. Aurora also won awards for the best Packham’s Triumph and Rosemarie, another in a long line of consecutive awards. Highest income per hectare for pears was also won along with the most accurate pear harvest forecast.
Although they have 10 hectares under apple orchards mostly with Bigbucks, (the improved full-red Gala), Panorama Goldens, Royal Beaut and a little Louterwater Granny Smith, growing pears is what they do best.
“We have 33 hectares of pears,” says Mario du Plessis adding: “I like to do things right. I will go to the orchards three or four times to check and double check.” This is part of his recipe for their success. “You have to love nature and have a passion for what you do. We work hard but it is never a hardship,” Kitty says adding that for the first eight years when they bought the farm they never had a holiday. “And we prefer to invest in new plantings and invest in training and uplifting staff than in ourselves,” she says.
Mario says that their rigour includes good farming practices: thinning, pruning and non-wasteful irrigation. “We use consultants such as Piet Nieuwoudt and Heinrich Kemp at Ceres Fruit Growers and rely on the input from Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, the largest exporter of South African apples and pears, to advise us on the varieties and optimal size mix based on what earns the highest income,” says Mario du Plessis. Kitty explains that more than two-thirds of the staff on Aurora live in the adjacent Nduli community. Some of them have worked for Aurora for 15 years now. “We’ve learned to think like someone who is desperate and act accordingly. Also, we like to believe that the Nduli community as a whole supports us as a family and what we do as it also has a positive impact on many of the staff we employ in the community,” she says.
Mario explains that they are using technology such as AquaCheck and a VHD pump irrigation system which best manages energy use but stresses that he tries to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. “I look, learn, wait and make a decision about how to proceed. I’ll let others pay the school fees and try out the latest and greatest, but I prefer to wait and properly assess,” he says.
Speaking of school fees, the higher-grade input that people doing their practical internship at Aurora benefit from is so highly regarded that some interns leave to find premium positions as a result. “People know things are done right at Aurora,” Mario says.
Kitty has a final word on their willingness to share their knowledge. “When my husband and I took over the ownership of Aurora our neighbours and people at CFG were very generous with their support and we are honoured to be able to pass this on. And, when it comes to the award for the most accurate harvest prediction, this is something in our DNA – my husband won that award too and now Mario has.”
Aurora is SIZA and GLOBALG.A.P certified.
Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing managing director, Roelf Pienaar says, growers of the calibre of the Du Plessis family at Aurora are especially inspirational and a credit to Tru-Cape. “They are a wonderful example of how commitment and passion can be enough to make a success even without the benefit of extensive funds.” Pienaar ends