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Specialty Crop Tour for Young Growers: South Africa Part One: Growing Apples A Long Way From Home

It has 54 countries with 1 billion people speaking 2000 languages. The continent of Africa is as culturally diverse as it is massive.
Western Cape Province of South Africa. Photo: Ben Wenk

Western Cape Province of South Africa. Photo: Ben Wenk

The history of the native and colonized peoples of this great land is so important to understanding and appreciating its place in the world today and in generations to come. Volumes have been written already on this subject, and I’ll interject some of that history where it enhances an understanding of the agriculture I was there to study, but I don’t have the wherewithal to delve into it now. So, with that as a huge aside, my goal today is to relate my experiences touring the fruit growing regions of the Western Cape Province of South Africa. First, we’ll describe the growing season and environmental conditions that create unique challenges for their fruit industry. Next, we’ll consider the other side of the equation and concentrate on the market challenges and opportunities the industry faces with particular attention to the Two-a-Day Cooperative whose managers facilitated my trip. And finally, we’ll get some farm by farm examples of forward thinking and innovative orchard management from folks I was fortunate enough to meet with in country.

There is much about the growing season in South Africa that would make the average Mid-Atlantic tree fruit grower jealous. For one example, the quantity and quality or light South African orchards receive can lead to some impressive vertical growth where trees are trellised and staked, similar to what I witnessed in New Zealand. Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs were nowhere to be found, neither was fire blight. The Snout Beetle, or Weevil, as it was called colloquially would be an example of one pest we don’t (yet?) have to contend with. Despite these advantages and the big win on the pest pressure trade off, I found the challenges their environment and growing season throw at them to be more numerous and significant.

With high photosynthesis from the abundance of light comes a high rate of sunburn damage on susceptible cultivars. Granny Smith in the cooler climates of Grabouw experience up to 40% sunburn damage without shade cloth. Often, when the brilliant rays are accompanied by scorching heat, the leaf stomas close, limiting photosynthesis and, in turn, fruit size.

Shade cloth south Africa

Shade cloth helps to prevent sunburn damage.

Their soils are mostly sandstone residuums; Table Mountain Sandstone, taking the name from the iconic mountain standing watch over the provincial capital of Cape Town. They are shallow, hold little water, and are prone to compaction which necessitates soil ripping and root pruning to combat it. So shallow are the soils that trees are typically dug in by shovels. Irrigation is a necessity, often coupled with fertigation. The industry uses micro sprinklers almost entirely for better coverage of the rooting zone—sandy soils have more limited capillary action, making drip lines largely ineffective.

But perhaps more limiting or worrisome than all the other environmental factors at play in South Africa is the shortage of chilling hours. Things like bud formation, bloom initiation, and dormancy are all things we take for granted in our temperate climate. In South Africa, these physiological processes are controlled by the growers using a combination of well-timed applications of plant growth regulators and hormones. Dormex, Promaxa, gibberellins and oil are the products preferred in these “rest breaking” sprays, without which, there could be no apple industry in South Africa.

Nursery stock is also limiting in South Africa. Access to dwarfing rootstocks, especially Geneva rootstocks, is limited. What’s more, heat stress and soil limitations make second year nursery trees difficult to get established—feathered trees in particular, according to some. Growers, especially in the warmer Ceres area, Witzenberg Valley, are looking at a startup nursery who’s working to provide them with third year nursery trees. Others are looking at budding in place. (We’ll spend more time on the different growing regions and get into the nitty gritty in a later installment of this series of three articles on South Africa.)

Regardless of where in the Western Cape an orchard was located, the sentiment was the same in terms of their two biggest obstacles. The industry has worked hard to overcome the limitations of their environment, but the two things they can’t control are access to water and labor concerns. A large dam in Grabouw has increased water access for growers in this region but the overall feeling was water was going to be a struggle going forward. And labor, while plentiful and cheap (approximately $8-9/day plus lodging and meals), is not skilled.

labor concerns south africa

Due to socio-economic factors, the pay for harvesting fruit is low and there is little incentive to work.

Again, much of this is the culmination of a variety of socio-economic factors tied to the tumultuous history of the region. There is little incentive for one to work for this pay, resulting in poor work performance. These workers also lack the training to operate machinery, equipment— really any technology of any kind. Those who can typically see that compensation jump to as high as $14-15/day. Moreover, vandalism and theft exacted on the farmers who hire workers at the low pay scale is also a frequent problem - we witnessed many scorched fields, burned we were told, by disgruntled farm workers turned arsonists.

So while the challenges are many, the industry was found to be thriving and growing in the areas I toured. For the next installment, we’ll talk a little bit about marketing South Africa apples by export, domestically, and the steps the Western Cape cooperative, Two-A-Day, is taking to enhance the profitability of its growers.

thriving industry south africa

Micro sprinklers are used for better coverage of the rooting zone, as the sandy soils have limited capillary action, making drip lines largely ineffective.

This is the first in a series of three articles on a YGA tour of the fruit industry in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.

Special thanks: Young Grower Alliance members who participated in fund-raising activities in support of YGA tours and Two-A-Day Grower Cooperative.

Contact Information

Ben Wenk
  • Three Springs Fruit Farm