South African citrus growers experience rollercoaster season -

South African citrus growers experience rollercoaster season

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South African citrus growers experience rollercoaster season

South Africa's citrus season looked set to be  strong with higher yields and good quality crop, but even as far back as April producers were predicting smaller-sized fruit. The country has grown its exports impressively to become the third-largest exporter worldwide, despite being outside the top 10 in terms of production. However, this season has not lived up to expectations. At we spoke with key players to find out more.

Predicted export volumes of 102.9 million 15 kilogram cartons have been revised to 98.3 million, only marginally higher than 2011's shipments of 93.9 million.

Insufficiently large sized fruit has forced the country to export more to markets less concerned about size than the U.S. and the U.K., such as the Middle and Near East.

The season also started on average about a week later than normal with the semi-tropical areas of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Nata the first to harvest, followed by the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape areas.

Competition clashes

This season has been challenging for growers with plenty of unexpected surprises, the biggest of which was Egypt's late supply of Valencia oranges into the Middle East, which overlapped with South African Navels.

Citrus Growers Association chief executive Justin Chadwick, said this situation was likely to continue in the future.

"Egypt is having more and more of an influence every year as their plantings start to gain more yield. This year they were very evident in the Middle East and it affected us. They are becoming a force to be reckoned with and they are later than Northern Hemisphere suppliers."

Coupled with this South Africa's Navels showed a high incidence of creasing, attributed to insufficient water and too much fruit on the trees.

Fruit stress

Exporter Core Fruit technical manager Steve Turner, said this was a significant problem for the industry with orange sizes on average one size smaller than last year.

"In general in South Africa, we have had a heavy crop,  good flowering and a cool spring which means a lot of fruit stays on the trees.  We didn't get the hot weather causing fruit to fall off trees, so we didn't get natural thinning."

Turner added that growers were also averse to pruning their orchards.

"Farmers are funny animals, they are reluctant to reduce the fruit on the trees. They prefer to take it and bank it but the problem is we are sitting on very small fruit."

Favourite Fresh Export marketing manager Reinier Meyer, said he didn't consider creasing as unmanageable and said it tended to happen most seasons, especially when farms ran behind schedule.

"I don't see creasing as a blanket problem, it's farm specific. If you manage your orchards correctly, with each farm picking at the optimum moment it can be minimized."

Safe bet cultivars

Navels are regarded as a slightly more temperamental orange with only 60-70% of fruit grown of sufficient quality for export, compared with 90-95% rates for Midknight oranges.

"We have seen a lot of growers breaking away from the high risk cultivars. Navels are not so attractive. It comes down to cost - if it's high value it's worth the risk, if it's low value you will see it disappear."

Meyer predicts there will be less of the early Navel cultivars grown in the future and that early mandarins such as satsumas will give way to later varieties such as Orris and Nadorcotts.

Core Fruit's Turner agrees. His company is the biggest exporter of the ClemenGold brand of Nadorcotts with Indigo Farming its largest producer.

"The late varieties are generally short in supply and come in on a good time window with picking in August and arrival in the market in September. There have been extensive plantings of Nadorcotts and Nova mandarins."

Turner describes that Nadorcotts as one of the best easy peeler varieties and superior to Spain's Ortanique mandarin, which is difficult to peel, leaves oil on consumers' hands and is full of seeds.

"It works for the farmer and buyer with good yields. It's a fantastic piece of fruit, a deep orange and reddish blush which sells itself, and these days with the supermarkets the way they are fruit has to sell itself."

Grapefruit gripes

While late maturing mandarins have thrived the story is far less rosy for South African grapefruits where sizes were too small for export.

Meyer says many farmers are replacing their grapefruit orchards with more profitable crops such as sugarcane and bananas. He adds that last season for many growers it cost more to produce the fruit than to sell it, with transport costs to port one of the biggest overheads.

Grapefruit production this season is between 20-30% lower than the last year with the majority of sizes in the 50-55 range, making it difficult to export to the U.K. and U.S. which prefer larger fruit.

Capespan's commercial manager John Taillard, says there have been diminishing consumption levels in Japan and Europe and a decline in white cultivars in favor of Star Ruby and Rose.

"We haven't really developed the U.S. market. There are different opinions about South African grapefruit, certain areas such as the Northern Cape have planted a lot but exports to the U.S. haven't taken off yet."

Grapefruits are also losing ground with the young people who want a Mars bar style fruit in terms of convenience such as easy peelers, claims Turner.

Lemon success

Lemons in contrast, have performed well this season in terms of price with South Africa benefiting from Argentina's late and lower volumes due to cold weather, droughts and strikes.

"All of these factors have played into our hands, from our perspective. Argentina is battling to compete with us in terms of cost," says Taillard.

He thinks fruit growers in the Eastern Cape, where the majority of lemons are grown, will look at their income per hectacre and view lemons as a much better money spinner than Navels.

Turner adds that Argentina's increasing focus on sending lemons to factories for processing juice and rind oil - a key ingredient for Coco Cola and Pepsi -  has helped South Africa.

He says the last three years have seen significant plantings of Eureka, which accounts for 90% of the country's lemons.

The fruit has achieved good prices over the last five years, although prior to that market conditions were tough.

"We are fairly optimistic about the future of lemons. South Africa has a good climate for lemons."

However, lemons' insensitivity to price, while a plus point at the moment, could backfire if there is a future oversupply in the market.

"If you have too many and you drop the price you don't sell more. With oranges and easy peelers you drop the price and you start moving more, this doesn't happen with lemons. In a couple of years' time we could be in a touch place with lemons.

"One of the big problems of the industry is it's difficult to predict what supply and demand is going to be. It depends on what other countries are doing."

Taillard believes producers need plan and adopt clever strategies for competing with the Northern Hemisphere.

"We must compete on the value proposition in terms of quality, branding and country of origin. We need to educate the consumer in terms of where the best fruit comes from. At the end of the day the consumer will decide."

Related stories: South Africa: building the global ClemenGold brand

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