Exploring Western Cape fruit production - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

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March 30, 2017

Exploring Western Cape fruit production

Written by Matt Greep, Agrii Fruit agronomist

Agrii is a regular sponsor of the U40’s Fruit Growers Conference and most recently Agrii fruit agronomist Matt Greep joined the group to visit the western cape of South Africa as part of their 50th Year Anniversary. The purpose of the trip was to discover the different challenges that fruit growers in South Africa encounter, and compare their growing methods with the systems that are used in the UK and at Agrii’s fruit iFarm in Kent. Below is Matt’s full report.

Agronomic factors, growing methods

Needless to say, with superb growing conditions nearly all year round and various mesoclimates within the valleys of the western cape, South Africa has huge potential to be one of the best growing climates in the southern hemisphere. With generally two seasons – a fiercely hot summer with temperatures reaching 40 Celsius, and cooler winters averaging mid 20s – tree fruit and soft fruit can benefit from extensive daylight hours and light intensity.

From an Agronomic perspective, this also allows for fewer common pathogens to become an economic impact to the fruit grower. Spider mite in tree fruit is extremely common because of the daylight temperatures. This seems to be approached with a more biological mindset, many growers going for metarhizium sprays regularly, especially when temperatures are between 35-42 degrees celsius. If needed, abamectin is the chemical of choice. Codling moth is a severe pest but controlled easily by mating disruptors (Rak 3+4 equivalent) placed in the top third of all trees and along all field boundaries, along with 3 chemical sprays of hallmark. Rubber bands soaked in insecticide are tied around the trunk of trees to prevent weevil climbing into the canopy of the tree.

However, the bare essentials of crop husbandry and growing systems must be observed in order to achieve maximum yields and good healthy plants. This is something that the South African growers don’t quite trump us at. Only two of the 7 growers we visited have now established a fruit wall system of growing – the majority of the growers still preferring older style root stocks that send out two to three leaders and a very dense canopy. The first orchard we visited was planted in 1914 and still achieving 71 T/ha (6m x 3.5m plantings). Moving forward, growers are looking to plant at 4.5m x 4m and hoping to achieve 90T/ha on an M7/M9 rootstock.

Yield, water and harvest

Sunburn is the biggest physical damage to fruit within apple production and averages about 30% crop loss per year. Trees are encouraged to grow a dense, leafy canopy to shade the fruit – this method is not completely reliable. Moving forward there will be a large emphasis on trialing shading nets (colour, thickness, material etc.) to create enough shade to prevent sunburn on the fruit.

Water is a big issue with SA farms, the law states that Cape Town can by-pass the water from the farms in a time of drought without prior notice. This has lead to many farms having to pay out for irrigation lakes at their own expense. Typically using 6,666 Cubes/ha. Irrigation is most commonly drip, however some farms believe in sprinkler irrigation as well to create rising humidity within the canopy. Other farms have disagreed with this and deem it a waste of water.

The dense, wide habit of the tree makes harvesting difficult too. Picking at height on ladders is common and often reaching the fruit in the center of the tree takes the longest time. This is another reason for moving toward the fruit wall system.

Apple trees like Granny Smith can expect to reach their terminal height of 3.5m by year three. By this time they are at full production and are crowned annually. Breaking limbs and stubbing is common practice to promote spurring wood.

Labour in SA is a trouble for growers as there is no infrastructure for promoting education within the townships. Also, the work ethic of the labour force is very poor. Most growers will have to employ three men to do a one man job. So although the minimum wage is a mere £1 per hour, there needs to be a huge working population on farm to get stuff done! SA law states that all farms must provide transport, health care and meals.

Common apple varieties grown in SA are Kanzi, Kiku, Cheeky, Granny Smith, Bigbucks, Golden Delicious.

Soft fruit at Haygrove Heaven

Buses unload pickers into the plantations at 06:30 and the days harvest is complete by 14:00, ahead of the warmest temperatures. For the berries to remain at their best, temperature management from picking to packing and shipping is paramount. The target is 45 minutes from picking to pack house, then chilled to 2 degrees celsius. The punnets are then palletized with heat control systems and shipped to the airport for air freight to the UK. Consumers can expect to see fruit on the shelves in the supermarket within 3-4 days of harvesting.

90% of the fruit grown (raspberries, blueberries and strawberries) on the four Haygrove SA farms will be sent to the UK fresh market. A large percentage of this is ‘Stella Blue’ blueberries that are ever-greening and require no chill time. The low-chill climate of SA and containerized growing system (18L pots of pete/perlite/choir blends) allow for good plant longevity (6-7 years) and yields of 20T/ha are achievable. Most plantations aim for 10T/ha in the first cropping year.

Haygrove production manager Kuhn, commented that the success to good blueberry production is “not allowing plants to be stressed by wind, high legged pots for good drainage and plug to pot transplanting system.”

The floricane raspberries are grown all throughout the year, cold storing of stripped canes allows for staggered planting and harvest dates. At 4-5 canes per pot and 16,000 pots per hectare, Haygrove regularly crop 25T/ha year on year.

Phytophthora in the substrate is the number one factor in crop loss and yield reduction, this year will be the first time peroxide is being used to fight this. Spidermite and Ozzy Mealybug are the two main pests – biological controls like Phytoseiulus and Californicus are used routinely. SWD has not yet reached the western cape of Africa but the Mediterranean fruit fly is present  – areal applications made by the government are sufficient along with mass trapping in the tunnels.

Haygrove SA currently grow 60 ha of blueberries, they predict SA production of blueberries to reach 2,800 ha by 2022 after seeing a 22% increase in demand from the UK.