In our unpredictable climate, farming is always a gamble. Sixth-generation farmer Fanie Landman is placing his
bet in the fields of his farm Vogelfontein, east of Alexandria on the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast, when I meet him.
“Chicory’s a very hardy, dry-land crop and, if you plant it at the right time, early before winter, you can do well,” he says optimistically as his tractors rumble up and down the field, creating furrows and ridges before the mechanical planter deposits seeds five centimetres apart.
“My oupa started farming chicory in the 1940s after the war when everything was scarce. It worked out perfectly: they had a good harvest. But my grandparents were so poor, they couldn’t afford to buy knives to chop the tops off the chicory roots, so Oupa took the ivory-handled Sheffield knives that they’d been given as a wedding present and used them in the fields,” he says.
Fanie doesn’t know what his ouma had to say about this, but the chicory crop did save them from bankruptcy in the Depression years. Farming has changed much since his oupa’s day: he plants 70 to 80 hectares a year with mechanised implements driven by his workers, compared to Oupa’s ten hectares planted by hand after preparation with ox-drawn ploughs, and the chicory is transported to the Chicory SA factory nearby for drying, instead of this being done on the farm.
In those days, people didn’t know about the amazing health benefits of chicory, it was just a cheap additive to coffee. These days, it’s a caffeine-free health drink in its own right, but many instant-coffee brands actually contain as much as 60 to 80 per cent chicory. However, even if you’re a purist who drinks 100 per cent coffee, you’ll probably still find ground chicory root in your daily diet, cleverly disguised in breakfast cereals and chocolate bars. It is also an ingredient in numerous pet foods.
I find this out a few months earlier when Paul Griffiths, agricultural manager of Chicory SA at the time, takes me to see this health crop being harvested on Whitney farm near Bushmans River.
Turns out chicory (Cichorium intybus) has long been valued for its medicinal uses: it’s good for detoxifying the liver and, in ancient Egypt and Greece, it was used as a bitter tonic to pep up both the bladder and liver. Way back in the England of Charles Dickens’ day, the dried and roasted roots were ground up and used as a coffee substitute.
“The 1820 Settlers brought it with them to the Eastern Cape,” says Paul, as we arrive at a field dotted with workers pulling the plump chicory roots from the fine, sandy soil. “These days we import seed from France. After many trials, we’ve found the Orchies variety the most successful for our conditions.”
Chicory must be harvested before it flowers and the roots become too fibrous. We watch workers trim the leaves off and stack the pale-brown roots into large bags, ready for loading on to a truck. “It’s a labour-intensive crop that creates huge employment in this area,” says Paul. “Apart from harvesting, it has to be kept free of weeds. We don’t use herbicides, so this must be done manually.”
Experienced chicory farmer Cyril Long is supervising the harvest. Chicory helped pay his school fees when he was young and he’s been growing the hardy crop since he left school 30 years ago to join his dad on the family farm. “It’s a good cash-flow crop for dry lands. You’re almost guaranteed to get your money back,” he reckons.
Craig Elliot, who succeeded Paul as agricultural manager of Chicory SA, explains that chicory must be rotated with other crops to avoid nematodes attacking the roots.
“Alexandria dairy farmers generally plant sorghum or Rhodes grass as feed for their cattle for four years between chicory crops,” Craig explains. After the chicory roots are harvested, they may plough them into the field to feed the soil, or allow animals in to graze them.
On a tour of the Chicory SA factory at Alexandria, a small agricultural town dominated by a fine old Dutch Reformed Church, Paul shows me the dusty roots being processed, from the chopping machine to the huge drum driers and roasters where the fresh cubes emit a pleasant, warm smell. “Is it the biggest chicory factory in the country?” I ask. “It’s the only one,” chuckles Paul.
Chicory SA is a private company owned by farmers, born out of the old control board system. Chairman Justin Stirk is a farmer and admits that at night he enjoys a cup of soothing Woody Cape, their brand of chicory health drink. He points out fields where he’s used chicory to restore old pineapple lands to good pasture when I visit him at Goodwoods Farm in the Southwell district.
“It’s swings and roundabouts on any crop, but chicory is the only dry-land crop that performs in this area with its erratic rainfall. If you plant at the right time and get decent rain, you will make a profit,” he says.
His father Dennis, now retired from farming, says the family started farming chicory when he was still at school in the late 1940s. “We did pineapples as well, but in 1976 we went big on chicory,” he recalls. “In those days, we used a wood-fired kiln to dry the chicory root on the farm.”
To get the low-down on what makes chicory so healthy, I turn to local integrative medicine practioner Dr Stuart Dwyer in Makhanda (Grahamstown).
“Chicory is a prebiotic that’s great for digestion,” says Stuart. “Gut health has become the next big thing in health care as a healthy gut has been shown to have consequent benefits for many organ systems in the body.”
Many people know it’s good to eat probiotic foods containing friendly bacteria found in natural yoghurt and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi to give the immune system a boost. Prebiotic foods, on the other hand, are high in special types of fibre that provide food for the probiotic bacteria. Eating balanced amounts of both pro- and prebiotics help ensure that you have the right balance of these bacteria in your gut.
Chicory tops the list of the 19 best prebiotic foods you should be eating, according to the Healthline website, with raw chicory root comprising 65 per cent fibre by weight, followed by dandelion greens (24 per cent) and Jerusalem artichokes (32 per cent).
Stuart explains that breakfast cereals and pet foods tend to be highly processed and hence lacking in taste and in many nutrients, including dietary fibre (despite what the manufacturers would have us believe), so it’s a good move to add chicory.
“Chicory contains inulin, which is a fully fermentable dietary fibre. It improves both taste and texture, while the soluble fibre improves bowel function. This translates into a healthier, more efficient colon with reduced risks of colonic infections and colon cancer. This applies as much to pets as to humans,” says Stuart.
Chicory helps reduce cholesterol, is good for the liver and helps to absorb vitamins and minerals from our food too. Sipping a hot cup of delicious locally produced Woody Cape chicory after dinner, I can’t help thinking, What’s not to like about a field of these humble roots growing in the dusty Eastern Cape soils?
Chicory SA 046 653 0048, www.chicory.co.za
Why Chicory’s a Health Tonic
Unlike many other fibres, chicory root has a smooth texture rather than being dry and flaky, and has been used for helping rid the body of intestinal parasites that thrive in a high-sugar, high -at environment.
stimulates the flow of bile and helps prevent cholesterol and fats being absorbed.
It’s rich in medicinally important phytochemicals such as inulin and has purifying and detoxifying effects.
Chicory slows down the absorption of sugar from the intestine and improves metabolic functions.
The bitter taste comes from sesquiterpene lactones in chicory compounds which have been found to have anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties.
Chicory has a sedative and tonic effect on the central nervous system – the opposite of the stimulating effects of caffeine.