South African table grapes enjoy better season - FreshFruitPortal.com

South African table grapes see improved markets and diversification

South Africa's table grape exporters have seen improved conditions in key markets this season and are expecting the campaign's second half to be favorable despite some recent rain-related setbacks.

Speaking with FreshFruitPortal.com, Willem Bestbier, CEO of growers’ association the South African Table Grape Industry (SATI) was optimistic that the next few months of the season would turn out well.

Weather depending, he expected a good crop overall in line with forecasts out of the Berg River and Hex River regions, which represent the bulk of mid- to late-season production.

"If the weather works in our favor it will be great," Bestbier said.

"The regions that come on stream now are those in the Western Cape, which is a winter rainfall area. So hopefully we won't see much rain, but it can happen. We're still optimistic."

Heavy rainfall in the Hex River region in mid-January delayed harvests for a few days there, but Bestbier expected the area would have a "strong run" when operations are back up and running. Most of the region's predominant variety Crimson Seedless was still unripe when the rains came, which will likely benefit the fruit.

"We still expect a better season than a year ago, and we hope to see a good average crop - that's still on the cards here," he said.

The Berg River's season is also going well, with vineyards in good shape producing good quality fruit.

Early crop with volumes in line with last season

In mid-December, SATI cut its forecast slightly to 59.55m and 66.3m carton following unusual rains in the Northern Provinces, where - as in the Orange River - the season is now winding down. Despite the reduction, those numbers would still be in line with the last season, when a total of 61.13m cartons were packed for export.

Export numbers have been running higher year-on-year throughout much of the 2019-20 season. But Bestbier said this was most likely due to an industry-wide trend of earlier harvests rather than larger crop.

"Obviously we would like to see bigger volumes as a result of higher production, but there's no certainty around that," he said.

"Higher numbers in the early weeks were mostly due to the earliness of the crops, and that applies almost across the board - Limpopo, the Northern Cape, and even the mid- to later-seasons in the Western Cape. All of them have started at least a week early."

Healthier markets for South African table grapes 

The market conditions in Europe and the U.K. - the industry's number one and two markets -  are much better than last year, which at the time one Netherlands-based importer described as "very complicated".

Significant import volumes from Peru - resulting from California's larger and later harvest - clashed with other supplies in the market, causing prices to fall well below attractive levels.

This year, however, there is more balance to the market.

"Generally speaking the mood in the industry is better than a year ago," Bestbier said. "When we ask about the market, exporters say it is so far more supportive than it had been by this time last year. It's definitely a more positive situation."

He noted that in addition to South Africa not having a large crop, both the Indian and Peruvian seasons had been affected by rains, while the Chilean industry was struggling with drought. 

"I think the delivery so far has been under original expectations or forecasts, and I think that makes the market healthier or in better balance than this time a year ago," he said.

Market diversification 

Another big plus of this season has been the clear diversification of markets, with a higher proportion of fruit going to markets like Canada, China, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the U.S.

By week one, the share of exports going to the European Union (excluding the U.K.) had dropped from 57% last year to 50% this year, while shipments to Canada were around double the previous few seasons at 2.3m cartons.

By the same week, exports to the Middle East were up from 967,000 cartons to 1.2m cartons and to Southeast Asia they were up from 795,000 to 1m.

Also, to the Far East there were up from 697,000 to 956,000, and to the U.S. from 56,000 to 133,000.

"In North America, we're seeing renewed interest in South African table grapes and the numbers are showing," Bestbier said.

"We're also experiencing a much better year in China than the previous season. It's not where it ought to be, but it's substantially much better than where it was a year ago, and that we ascribe to the bigger berry size that this season is yielding. And obviously the pricing is better, so it makes China a better or a more attractive destination for our grapes."

He noted that the industry remains reliant on the U.K. and Europe for the bulk of its crop, but as niche markets around the world become viable and profitable for exporters, volumes sent there will grow. There is also a stronger desire to diversify following last year's challenging season in the key markets.

"Diversification is welcomed and obviously encouraged by us, I think that market it is certainly something that's a strategic imperative for us," he said.