South Africa: Winter rains will be key for next pome fruit season, says packer

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South Africa: Winter rains will be key for next pome fruit season, says packer

The water situation is better this year, but Anton Müller of packhouse Kromco Pty Ltd emphasizes the Western Cape needs "above average" winter rainfall to optimize grower returns. 

"If the water reservoirs and dams that feed Cape Town are not at least at 85% at the end of winter, we have automatic cuts in our water available of about 30%," says Müller, technical manager at the Grabouw-based packer which is one of the country's largest for deciduous fruit. 

He describes this as a "major cause for concern" but this year's crop has been less affected than it was last year during the drought in the Ceres region. 

He says the essons learnt there, as well as recent research in water and irrigation, contributed to a better understanding of management priorities.

"To fill the dams up we really need an above average winter rainfall, but back to the current crop there were instances where the people ran out of water but those are sporadic cases; the main issues are for next season," he says. 

Müller points out the Theewaterskloof dam - which supplies Vyeboom, Villiersdorp and Greyton area - is only 18% full.

"Investment in continuous logging of the fields to really monitor what is happening with irrigation has made more tools available to monitor soil-water content proactively," he says.

"The most common irrigation type is micro-irrigation, but there’s also drip irrigation," he adds, claiming the former represents about 95% of irrigation in the Western Cape pome fruit industry.

He says the industry has also been helped greatly by the services of Fruit Look, funded by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and executed by Netherlands-based eLEAF.

"They help us with satellite imaging to look at long-term trends of blocks as well as comparisons with area-wide trends throughout the season," he says.

"It has given us an additional tool to get a picture and combine and compare the picture you see via Fruit Look with what you see in the field and in the soil, thereby constantly improving our strategies and understanding of environmental and crop interactions."

Müller highlights an "almost direct relationship" in optimum irrigation and the final income per hectare.

"So there isn’t room like in stonefruit where you can use deficit irrigation to still maintain your normal income per hectare, so the impact in the case of pome fruit is normally the first thing is fruit size," he says.

"If you don’t give sufficient water your fruit size will show a difference. Another major defect is that sunburn will increase dramatically, so your class 3 will definitely run through the roof."

He emphasizes this has not been the case this season, but is worth considering in the campaigns ahead when considering expected rainfall and irrigation practices.

So far, the vast majority of pears have been harvested and some picking has finished for particular apple cultivars in the Grabouw area.

"We have harvested the Williams, Bon Chretien, Rosemary, the Packham's Triumph - all the pears. Forelle is still continuing in some areas but in the Grabouw area we’ve already finished that," he says.

"We’re now busy with Fuji and Braeburn – the apples that are finished are the early Golden Delicious and the Galas.

"The Grannys have also started already, and we are looking forward to the Pink Lady/Cripps Pink apples coming in the first week of April."

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