South Africa: Small player with explosive growth

South Africa: Small player with explosive growth

The African country is a small role player in the global cherry industry, but its production grew 39% last season reaching 969 tons of cherries. Furthermore, it is expected to achieve a growth of cultivated hectares of 89% by 2026 (based on 2021). The main export destinations are UK and the Middle East.

The Western Cape province is the main cherry area in South Africa with 83% of the national production. This is due to the favourable climate and localised knowledge. This region is also the main stone fruit production area in the country, and these producers have knowledge and systems in place that makes growing cherries easier for them.

The Western Cape is also a winter rainfall region, and this reduces the risk of damage caused by summer rain during harvest time. The high lying areas of the Western Cape also receive more chilling hours than the rest of the country, and chilling units are essential when growing cherries.

Smartcherry spoke with Karien Bezuidenhout, manager at Hortgro Cherries ZA, cherry growers’ association that promote the industry in the country, establishing uniform grading regulations for producers, exchanging information, sharing resources, among others objectives.

Source: HortGro Cherries ZA presentation

What are the most popular cherry varieties grown in the region?

Lapins is one of the cultivars the South African industry started with, but in recent years the ‘Royal’ range (Royal Hazel/Dawn/Lynn) has increased in popularity. Due to climate change there’s also a movement towards cultivars with lower chilling unit requirements.

Cherry production in South Africa has grown by 39%. What is the main reason for this impressive figure?

South Africa has the advantage that we can supply cherries in September, when no other country can. Therefore, high early season prices have made it very attractive to grow cherries. Cherries often give fruit producers a way to diversify their business and spread their risk.

What are the main challenges faced by cherry growers in your region?

The climate is often the biggest risk – rain and hail during the harvest season can be devastating. Birds can also cause substantial damage. And because of the fast growth the last few years, there are some short-term challenges with processing capacity as well.

How has climate change affected cherry production, and what measures are being taken to adapt to these changes?

Climate change causes drought which can be very limiting, but it also causes adverse climatic events, such as hailstorms, floods, frosts when one least expects it. Many producers have chosen to protect their cherries with nets, but adverse climatic conditions are always a risk in agriculture.

Do you have any research projects currently underway related to cherry production?

The industry is currently funding a project on Adaptibility indexing of cultivars. The ultimate aim of this project is to develop an index based on phenotypic data collected from a range of tree and fruit characteristics and by applying statistical models to quantify and qualify adaptability and stability of different cherry genotypes planted in diverse growing areas. Most of the cultivars used in South Africa are imported and for the grower to know which cultivars will be best suited to his region, is a challenge.

What role does technology play in modern cherry production, and what new technologies are being developed to improve the industry?

Producing cherries is an exact science. SA’s industry use a lot of technology to improve chances of success.  On the production side we use NDVI images, soil scans and precision fertiliser applicators. We use continuous probes to optimise irrigation and tablets for scouting.  In the packhouse we use high tech cameras and packing lines to improve the packaging process.

What is the outlook for the South African cherry industry?

We are very optimistic about the future of the industry. Production is expanding and the knowledge we gain help the industry to put a quality product on the market. We will have to look at some new markets to absorb the increase in production, but we are confident that our quality will ensure us a space in the world market, even though we are a small role player.

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