Tunnelling for Treasure

February 12th, 2024

Behind Babylonstoren #2: Elzé Bresler 

Babylonstoren grows a multitude of tomatoes in every shape and hue. Our tunnel farmer, Elzé Bresler, currently grows 52 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. With three new tunnels under construction and earmarked for tomatoes, her collection of pomme d’amour or love apples as the French call them, is set to expand.  

“We never pick anything that isn’t ripe,” says Elzé, who harvests for optimum flavour. “We have tomatoes of different shapes, colours, sizes and stripes, and we are constantly evaluating varieties. We compare shelf life, flavour and visual impact to determine what we want to continue planting.”

Elzé finds it extremely hard to choose a favourite but admits to being particularly fond of the Black Beauty and Vintage Wine varieties. With their robust red cheeks, tomatoes might look the perfect embodiment of summer sunshine. Yet despite growing in tunnels, they do not cope well with excessive heat and fruit production slows down above 28°C. 

“We farm very scientifically, because we farm hydroponically. I have data for everything and I spend a lot of time analysing trends. But the truth is, when I have to make a tough call, I do so from the heart. Plants are living organisms and sometimes they respond in strange ways,” she says. Besides tomatoes, she grows numerous varieties of scented roses, cucumber, pumpkin, marrow, sweet and chilli peppers, beans, watermelon, turmeric, ginger and espalier fruit trees. Her team just finished planting a tunnel each of specialised cut flowers. “This summer we jumped from 8 to 44 tunnels, which has been a massive challenge. It requires a huge shift in mindset. We work six days a week and have a skeleton staff on Sundays,” she says.  

Elzé obtained a BSc in Health and Radiation Physics from Stellenbosch University. She completed a postgrad teacher’s certificate, followed by a year of studying Kinesiology, before teaching in Taiwan for four years. Back in South Africa, she taught mathematics at Paul Roos Gymnasium. And then the tunnel bug bit.

Elzé farmed blueberries for five years before Babylonstoren approached her to grow four tunnels of tomatoes. “Four tunnels!” she laughs. Three summers later, she and her team farm 44 tunnels of the most unique varieties available on the market. Elzé is passionate about people and plants, and trains both with great care.  

“I have a wonderful team. They are handpicked and every new member has to fit in. We have to be cheerful because tunnel conditions can be harsh,” she says, explaining that tunnel temperature is generally 5–7°C higher than the outside temperature. In this part of the Boland, temperatures soar into the high thirties and forties quite frequently. “If you move through the tunnels, you’ll always hear people singing and laughing. I’m also very honest with my team. I’ll tell them when I’m planting something because I need to learn, and when I’ve made a mistake. They trust that,” she adds.  

Water management is a critical part of her job and she uses technology to keep tabs on irrigation. “In summer I never move far away from the tunnels – and definitely not from December until the end of February. I can’t necessarily solve everything myself – like a burst water pipe or faulty pump – but I can make tough calls and take responsibility, should there be any damage,” she says. 

It’s a huge bonus that she absolutely loves plants. “It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen a certain flower seven hundred times. The next time I see it, I’ll smile again. And when it turns into a fruit, I’ll smile again. There are always new things to experience and evaluate here,” she says.

Despite soaring temperatures and the need for constant vigilance, summer is Elzé’s favourite season. Because that’s when all the planning, planting, watering and pruning bear fruit. And veg. Crazy beautiful, mind-boggling fruit and veg.  

Try Elzé’s heirloom tomatoes at home and make this lovely caprese salad using our Fresh Gift Box.

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