Aat Hoekstra will be remembered as one of the leading figures in the South African table grape industry. He passed away on 24 January 2022 after a long and active career in the South African table grape industry. In 2019, the South African Table Grape Industry (SATI) honoured him at a 125-year celebration as one of the industry’s eight pioneers.
In an interview with Fresh Plaza in 2020, Aat Hoekstra described his career as
‘The best 70 years I could wish for’.
Aat Hoekstra was born in Gravenzande, the Netherlands in 1930 and emigrated to South Africa in 1950. He settled in Paarl and under the mentorship of Jan Kirsten, one of the most successful table grape producers at the time, bought the farm Nancy in 1953. He started out by growing cut flowers while developing Nancy as a table grape farm. Today Hoekstra Fruit Farms has 14 farming units in its portfolio.
In the early years, South African fruit exports were regulated through a single channel marketing system controlled by the Deciduous Fruit Board. Aat Hoekstra was never in favour of the system. When he realised melons were not classified as a fruit but as a vegetable and therefore not subject to the legislation, he decided to grow and export melons. He created the Hoekstra Super Melons brand in 1968 and started to export melons to the United Kingdom and later to continental Europe.
The marketing and logistical network developed through this initiative proved invaluable when the table grape industry was deregulated in 1996. Hoekstra Super Grapes (today, Hoekstra Grapes) was added to the Hoekstra Super Melons brand.
Aat Hoekstra had life-long interest in improving table grape varieties to enhance consumers’ eating and taste experience. During his career he tested and commercialised a number of new cultivars. Through a joint venture with the Volcani Research Organisation in Israel, the Hoekstra Group has tested and evaluated more than 120 new cultivars on the Hoekstra farms. Prime Seedless and Starlight are among the most successful cultivars in South Africa.