On any given day one might find research assistant Eben Stal working in an orchard in Grabouw, and a few hours later in another in Ceres. Blitzing around the major deciduous fruit growing areas of the Boland is all part and parcel of his job – and he loves it.
“There’s just something about getting up early in the morning and heading off to a farm, and about pretty soon finding yourself working in an orchard,” muses Mr Stal, who was born in the Karoo but grew up in Stellenbosch.
He started off in a casual position in the Department of Horticultural Science at Stellenbosch University some five years ago, after among others working for Tiger Brands. Mr Stal was permanently appointed in 2017. His position is made possible through the continuous financial support of the EJ Lombardi Trust to the Department of Horticultural Science.
He has since been a much- valued right hand to many Matie students who are busy with orchard-based preharvest research as part of their postgraduate studies in horticultural science.
“I help them lay out trials on commercial farms, to apply treatments, to take measurements throughout the season and to collect fruit to sample and examine. This is all done as per their research protocol,” Mr Stal explains more about his important supportive role.
Some days it means he will be spraying – a job he particularly likes – as part of chemical thinning or fruit colour improvement trials or counting the fruit developing on a tree. Other days he will be working on rest break trials or foliar nutrient application experiments. The fieldwork he is called on to do all depends on the season, and the type of fruit under investigation. Peak harvesting season can be especially hectic.
When Mr Stal is not on the road or in an orchard, he is to be found in the Maturity Indexing Lab in the EJ Lombardi Building, home to the SU Department of Horticultural Science. There he is weighing and examining fruit in the Maturity Indexing Lab that has been harvested from experimental plots. Fruit quality data such as size, fruit firmness, defects and other maturity parameters such as colour and starch content are all logged per computer for future reference.
Mr Stal is also in charge of the collection and preparation of material for the practical training of undergraduate students.
Sometimes he also has to play chauffeur to students who need to inspect orchards that form part of their research work, but who have not yet obtained a driver’s license.
Working in the Department has over the years given Mr Stal a thorough sense of appreciation for the effort that goes into ensuring that there is quality fruit for consumers to buy in the shops.
“It takes a lot of effort, and much is done working in the hot sun,” he notes.
The job has some other hazards too.
“Don’t pick cling peaches without wearing a long-sleeved shirt. You’ll itch. If it does happen, the trick is not to scratch, but that’s difficult!”
Mr Stal has over the years developed his skills by attending three short courses about the safe handling of chemicals, handling of spray equipment and handling of pruning equipment, as well as attending a first aid and firefighting course.
“I thoroughly enjoy working in the Department and have over the years learnt a lot from other staff!” he notes.