A prickly pear (cactus pear) grower north of Pretoria, whose cultivation has grown from a sideline to a strong business, has big plans for the fruit.
Daan Boraine’s harvest at Prickly Business has been going well, although it has been a dry summer with some signs of water stress on younger cladodes (pads) and fruit. December has been cool, with temperatures in the high twenties, but after the heat of two weeks ago (reaching 37°C), the fruit “popped” and more than 300 crates were filled over two days.
He is currently limited by two associated factors: stronger supply than demand and a lack of cooling facilities. Due to the latter, the fruit has to be marketed within 24 hours after harvest, which reduces room to manoeuvre within the marketplace. A cooling facility has become a necessity in his fruit farming enterprise, in order to hold fruit back during periods of oversupply. His trials have shown that the fruit can keep up to 6 weeks at 5°C.The current hot weather has benefited not only him, but other prickly pear growers too: in December a box generally containing around 12 fruit could go for R60 (almost 4 euro), it has now fallen to about half that.
He has a good offset for his fruit through Freshmark, the Checkers/Shoprite group’s fresh produce division, which stocks his prickly pears throughout the country and as far afield as Namibia. He supplies fresh produce markets (demand seems particularly strong at the Tshwane market in Pretoria) and private greengrocers, some of whom peel the fruit and package it in punnets. Last season he produced 60 tonnes over seven weeks.
His fruit is marketed under his own Amigo brand.
As it is, production is so good – and he plans expansion to his plantings – that he is looking for new supermarket opportunities. Prickly pear consumption is held back by slow growth in consumer demand and a prejudice against red-fleshed fruit, especially in the north of the country, where the latter is still strongly associated with the tasteless cattle fodder prickly pear in the minds of older consumers, who are also the main consumers of the fruit. Much consumption is driven by a sentimental attachment to prickly pears, absent in young consumers.
“I want to distinguish my fruit because I believe there’s potential for a strong market,” he states. “I’ve started trials in thinning out fruit to five or six per pad and this has resulted in fruit of about 200g to even 250g. Many prickly pear producers pack 15 to 18 fruit in a box. I want to move to as few as nine fruit in a box.”
Daan Boraine amid his prickly pears
Larger fruit would make sense from a consumer point of view, in the sense of more flesh to reward the bother of removing the skin. Many consumers are reluctant to purchase prickly pears because of the need to skin the fruit, even though they are dethorned. The skin also impedes the fruit’s popularity in the informal market, where fruit that can be eaten on the spot (with the exception of mangoes and citrus) are preferred.
Some prickly pear growers towards the Lowveld have abandoned the fruit altogether because of cochineal infestation, but Daan Boraine has been employing a spray that has proved to be close to 100% effective over the past six weeks, he says.
South African prickly pear exports
The export market for prickly pears has collapsed over the past few years. Large growers like ZZ2 have pulled out of prickly pear production due to rising production costs, post-harvest problems, low returns amid the drought of recent years but Daan Boraine believes there’s still an opportunity there. An exporter has told him that Dubai is looking for red-fleshed prickly pears, like the Algerian. Because of local preference, his current plantings centre around the popular white-fleshed Morado and some yellow-fleshed Gymno Carpo (he has removed his Skinner’s Court), but he has established his own block of Algerian planting material with an eye on a market that favours the red-fleshed prickly pear.
In winter the plants are pruned back to at most 1.6m to facilitate picking and allow sunlight into the centre of the plant, leaving tonnes of cactus pads which are sold as cattle fodder, but he’d like to make more use of the pads. He’s very enthusiastic about nopalitos, the dethorned and trimmed pad, well-loved in Mexican cuisine but completely unknown in South Africa where only livestock consume prickly pear pads. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation shares his enthusiasm for the prickly pear (they prefer the term cactus pear), which they call “a crop for a hotter and drier world”.
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