Agriculture has always been considered to be the main sector in the province’s economy. Despite other sectors having surpassed agriculture in their contribution to the province’s economic growth in the recent years, this sector continues to dominate Free State’s landscape with cultivated land, natural veld and grazing land.
In 2007 agriculture contributed about 3,1% to the economic growth of the Free State, but represented about 14% of the total agricultural sector in the country (contributed R3.5 billion to SA’s GDP in 2007.) The Free State is a summer-rainfall region. The western and southern areas are semi-arid. Known as the “Granary of the country”, the Free State has cultivated land covering 3.2 million hectares, while natural veld and grazing cover 8.7 million hectares.
Field crops yield almost two thirds of the gross agricultural income of the province. Animal products contribute a further 30%, with the balance generated by horticulture. Ninety percent of the country’s cherry crop is produced in the Ficksburg district, while the two largest asparagus-canning factories are also situated in this district. Soya, sorghum, sunflowers and wheat are cultivated, especially in the eastern Free State, where farmers specialise in seed production.
About 40% of the country’s potato yield comes from the high-lying areas of the Free State. The province produces about 100 000 tons of vegetables and 40 000 tons of fruit each year. The main vegetable crop is asparagus, both of the white and green varieties. This industry is expanding and becoming increasingly export orientated. After manufacturing, the agricultural sector is the second largest exporting sector in the Free State.
Counter seasonality to Europe, the primary SA export market for horticultural and floricultural products, is in itself a competitive advantage. SA is the closest major Southern Hemisphere producer of horticultural and floricultural products to Europe – and has significantly shorter shipping times. The temperate climate in the Eastern Free lends itself to production of deciduous fruits such as apples, berries, cherries, peaches, plums and apricots.
Opportunities exist in the cultivation and processing of various apple varieties, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries and green asparagus for export as fresh produce as well as cherries for glazing and bottled asparagus.
Due to the opposing seasons, Southern Hemisphere cut flower producers are competitive in European markets during the southern summer. In the case of the Free State, soil conditions in several areas are ideal for floriculture production. South Africa also has the advantages in production technology and quality control. In addition, South Africa sun conditions generally give Free State floriculturists adequate light intensity, which is a key requirement of the industry.
Opportunities exist for the production of organic geranium, spearmint and peppermint essential oils in the Free State
Although some processing infrastructure exists in the province, most produce still leaves the province unprocessed which leaves scope for further investment in the processing of this sub-sector. This fact is supported by the forecast of an increase in consumption of fruit and vegetable juices by the United Kingdom market, representing an excellent export opportunity for the Free State.
In the Motheo region commercial livestock farming is the backbone of the rural areas, particularly in the areas of Mantsopa and Naledi.
The province is poised to become one of the leaders in bio-diesel production with plans to construct the first Bio diesel plant in the town of Hopestad. This site was based on the following criteria: Its central location in an existing Sunflower growing area, s for the enthusiastic and participative attitude shown by the farming community who see the long term benefit to them of a Bio diesel producing hub their town. The plant construction will be done in two phases.
The 1st is to get the oil pressing facilities up and running to process the already acquired feedstock waiting to be pressed. The oil will be shipped on a regular basis to the newly upgraded plant in Bainsveli, Bloemfontein for conversion to BioDiesel.
The second phase will be to erect the BioDiesel portion of the plant in Hopetad and manufacture the biodiesel at this plant. The plant at Bainsvlei will then act as a back up plant for Hopestad. Construction of this site has already commenced.