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carrot juice

The amazing story of SA’s carrot kings

The humble carrot has celebrity status at Greenway Farms where man and machine work in fine-tuned harmony and where the owners are embarking on a bold new high-tech adventure in juicing, writes Bruce Cohen, editor/publisher of Food & Beverage Reporter.

I discovered a deep and abiding respect for carrots, thanks to an afternoon spent with Vito Rugani. Together with his partner, Vincent Sequeira, they have become the undisputed Kings of Carrots in South Africa.

During the last 28 years these “farmer-preneurs” have transformed a small, teetering-on-the-edge-of-failure farm near the Cradle of Mankind into a high-tech agro-enterprise, a sort of Cradle of Carrotkind called Greenway Farms that supplies around 40% of SA’s carrot needs under the Rugani brand.

Did I say carrots? Yes. Just carrots. 200 tons a day. Wait. That’s not strictly true. They also farm grass, a helluva lot more grass than carrots, in fact. That’s because their custodianship of the sustainability of the 2 500 Ha they farm means that after a carrot crop has been harvested the land needs to regenerate for two-and-a-half years.

These fallow lands are turned into rich grasslands on which 1000 head of cattle graze and fertilise. So there’s grass and grass-fed cattle. And carrots. And carrot juice. But more of that later.

Both Rugani and Sequiera came from small-scale farming families. They decided to join forces in 1992 to farm near Tarlton, producing a variety of veggies for local markets on a 20 ha smallholding.

Visionary farming

Two years later, says Vito, they had both had enough. “We realised we simply could not farm the way our parents had done. It was just not viable and we were working like dogs with nothing to show for it.”

So the pair scraped together the airfare and went to Australia for a month to seek inspiration. They found it in spades, returning to SA with a fresh vision of farming for the future.

“In Australia we quickly realised that SA was 100 years behind,“ says Vito. ”Apartheid had made farmers reliant on cheap – and unproductive – labour, and our farmers just did not understand how to use technology.

I realised we had to find a way to create an ergonomic balance between man and machine to get productivity up to decent levels. It’s not about replacing labour with machines. It’s about making people more productive.”

On their return from Australia, the partners raised capital by selling off 40% of their farm to a silent partner (repurchased 5 years later) and started investing in machinery and focussing on training and productivity. In 2000 they narrowed their focus down to carrots.

“We realised we needed to specialise,” says Vito. “We had to get so good at our game if we really wanted success.”

The big breakthrough came when Greenway Farms revolutionised the SA carrot business by introducing a solution called hydro-cooling that extended the shelf life of carrots from a few days to four weeks.

So slick is Greenway’s harvesting and processing operation that a carrot can be picked, washed, packed and chilled to 2°C within an hour. And such has been the success of the Greenway operation that they now farm at three sites (Gauteng, Limpopo and the Free State) to ensure 365 days a year production.

Rugani logoVito is passionate about branding. He flatly refuses to private label. It’s meant that his carrots are not available in the fresh produce aisles of leading supermarket chains – and it doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

Vito is a firm believer in the importance of provenance, of reestablishing the farmer-as-brand instead of the commoditisation of produce where consumers have no idea where their food comes from.

Rugani’s distribution channel is mostly through the fresh produce markets and independents – which pierces the illusion that the big supermarket groups are the be-all and end-all of food distribution. The company is also exporting to Mozambique and other nearby countries.

Vito is critical of the big food retailers, some of which, he says, are wrecking the farming industry by trying to force long-term price stability/certainty on them when the reality is that farmers require a spot market to cope with the uncertainties of Nature. This is especially so as global warming starts to take its toll.

Sophisticated juicing

Greenway Farms came to my attention through a serendipitous meeting with Andrea Giuglietti, Africa sales manager for Italian paper and packaging company, IPI. I met him at Propak Africa 2016 in Jo’burg while I was browsing the Polyoak stand and a bright orange aseptic brick of Rugani carrot juice captured my attention.

Had Polyoak merged with Tetrapak? Turns out IPI has formed an alliance with Polyoak to market its aseptic filling machinery and packaging in SA.

carrot juice packagedAndrea made it abundantly clear to me that I just had to go and see the Rugani juice set-up. It was truly world class, absolutely state of the art, he assured me. It was also IPI’s first installation in SA. He wasn’t kidding.

On entering the brand-new Rugani carrot juice plant on the farm, I was truly astonished by the scale of the investment and the sophistication of the technology deployed.

Rugani’s move into value-added juice processing was a result of one of Vito’s sons (there are eight Rugani and Sequiera children working in this truly family business) wondering how the farm could make use of all the broken carrots that had to be withdrawn from the line and were going to waste. Juice perhaps?

Vito started researching the subject and was drawn into the orbit of an expert on carrot juice at the University of L’Aquila in Italy. After a visit to the professor, Vito says he leant the secrets of making a natural carrot juice directly – not from concentrate – with high bioavailability of its actives and without preservatives.

He then commissioned Italian engineering firms to design and build the complex customised extraction plant which came on stream at the end of last year. The result is a juice of superior quality and vitality with an earthy taste quite unlike other concentrate-sourced or sweetened carrot juices.

Key to the process is the fact that the facility is on the farm – the juice can be aseptically packed within a few hours of the carrots being harvested. It’s a case study of integrated farming/value-adding that preserves freshness/nutrient integrity.

Quite unlike other carrot juices

The Rugani juice has a remarkably high 10mg of beta carotene per 100ml of juice (see sidebar story on the health benefits). It is also low in sugar (5%) compared to carrot juices made from concentrate/juice blends because there are no added sugars.

So efficient is the carrot-to-juice conversion that Rugani prints not just the date of harvest, but also time of filling on every container. Now that’s traceability! The facility includes two of IPI’s high-speed aseptic filling lines (one for 330ml and one 750ml), and Vito says support from Italian supplier IPI has been excellent.

The juicing plant, which is capable of producing 30 000 litres a shift, includes a fully automated CIP (clean-in-process) system which eliminates most of the downtime required for cleaning, and also ensures an export-quality hygiene standard across the entire plant. The facility will shortly be fully HACCP certified.

To complete the production cycle at this world-class operation, all the pulp produced during juicing is sent directly to a giant methane digester on the farm that generates about 1.7 Megawatts of power, enough to drive the boiler and some of the other equipment used in the juicing process.

Greenway employs over 200 people at its farms and the company prides itself on a proactive empowerment policy that has seen a staff trust acquire 10% of the enterprise.

In line with Vito’s philosophy about finding the right balance between technology and human resources, Greenway pays well above minimum wages (it’s evidenced by the parking lot on the farm filled with cars belonging to its workers).

I headed back to Jo’burg with not just a deeper respect for carrots but also for farmers like Vito and Vincent; their vigorous entrepreneurial and enlightened approach to working the land and creating value is a bright light shining through the fog of gloom that seems to be rolling over SA’s farming sector.

Greenway Farms T + 27 (0) 72 698 9332; [email protected];

IPI Andrea Giuglietti T +27 (0)76 601 8453; [email protected]  


Down to the roots of good health

Vito Rugani holds a BSc in agriculture from Tukkies and he’s passionate about the health benefits of carrots. They are, of course, a key source of betacarotene, a precursor to Vitamin A, which is helpful in many areas, especially eye health and various age-related diseases. It is also a powerful anti-oxidant that mops up free radicals and helps boost immunity.

But Vito is also intensely interested in what he describes as the “life force” contained within carrots and other root crops. In a paper he wrote some time back, Vito explains the meaning of this.

“Imagine what happens when a freshly-harvested carrot is placed in a cupboard … a few days later the carrot has sprouted new leaves and new roots too. Despite the absence of sunlight, nutrients or water, the carrot, by utilising only its cell sap – it’s life force – is able to start producing life again. Compare that with a fruit like, say, an apple, which will simply wither. All storage roots have this vitality in them,” says Vito, which, he says, makes them a rich source of natural cures.

“They are the storehouses of new life – that is their job!”

It’s against this background that Vito tells the story of what happened last year when Greenway farmworkers started drinking the carrot juice – and kept coming back for more. Some, who were HIV positive, said the juice provided huge relief from the symptoms of their illness.

Word of the benefits of Rugani carrot juice quickly spread – as far as the University of KZN – where it prompted a team led by Professor Colleen Aldous at the School of Clinical Medicine to visit Greenway’s Tarlton farm and interview the workers about their use of the juice.

In their pilot study, the researchers said those interviewed had experienced benefit in the following areas:

* Improved strength and vigour * Increased body weight * Reduced skin rashes * Reduced irritability * Improved eyesight * Reduced hypertension * Reduced joint pain * Reduced abdominal cramps * Cessation of diarrhoea

The research team concluded that these anecdotal reports indicated both direct and indirect benefits for HIV sufferers and they are now planning a clinical study that will compare the benefits for HIV patients of carrot juice extracted by Rugani’s methods vs conventional juice.

Vito believes that once the research comes in and public awareness of the health benefits of real carrot juice grows, it could play a powerful role in public health. He has made sure that, despite Greenway’s multi-million rand investment in the plant, the juice is affordable and not just a superfood for the wealthy.

Source: Food & Beverage Reporter