Early cultivar largely unscathed by drought

Cheeky® pear harvest progresses well

The locally-developed Cape Rose pear, bred by Taaibos Human of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and marketed as a Cheeky® pear, has now been in commercial production for close to a decade. Its harvest started a bit later this year, as the general season is about ten days later, and from then on it has been all hands on deck. “You harvest Cheeky® as fast as possible, you pack it as fast as possible and you send it out as fast as possible,” says Christo Strydom of Wolseley Fruit Packers (Wolfpack).

The Cheeky® pear with its intense blush

Most Cheeky® volumes still go to Europe which has a taste for the blushed pear varieties introduced by South Africa over 25 years ago. Germany in particular likes a blushed pear.

“If the Chinese market were to open for us, they’d love this fruit. They love big fruit and they love red fruit,” says Christo Strydom, who has been involved in the commercial production and marketing of the pear since the start.

The producers delivering to Wolfpack in the Greater Ceres region started picking Cheeky® last week and most harvesting will end by this week. The pear, whose whole raison d’être is to act as bridge between the season-opening blushed pears like Rosemarie, Flamingo and Celina and the later Forelle, has a picking window of just two weeks.

It opens the market for the large volumes of Forelle that come in from around the third week in February and sets good prices for the category.

Because this is a pear destined for a short cameo during the season, Cheeky® plantings are relatively small. “It’s a niche product. I always tell producers: you can’t ranch with Cheeky®,” Christo Strydom says. There are about 350ha of Cheeky® orchards currently in South Africa of which about three-quarters are of productive age.

He is very pleased with what he’s seeing. “The drought in the Western Cape is a catastrophe but I cannot see any sign that Cheeky® has been affected by the drought, given that it’s an early variety. The colour looks good, the size too.” 

“There’s more fruit than last year,” he continues. “I always say: ‘Cheeky® sets so easily, there’s more fruit than there were flowers’.” In fact, this fertility can present problems during some years. When there are too few spurs (flower buds) on a tree and consequently not a lot of fruit, the remaining fruit become huge, weighing over 500g, or “big fat children’s heads”, as he calls them. This year the problem of unmarketably large fruit (the largest size that Wolfpack packs is about 320g) seems negligible.

Manipulation practices with the Cheeky® differ somewhat from other pears; the Cheeky® develops spurs with more difficulty on older wood than other varieties. “I think we’re getting better at manipulating the cultivar’s flower initiation, we’re getting cleverer at that and the trees are maturing,” Strydom comments. It has been called one of the more difficult pear varieties with which to farm.

Sunburn is present, particularly in a cultivar like Cheeky® with its sensitive skin, after the infernal temperatures during the first week of December which has left its mark on other fruit like plums too. The southeaster wind has been persistent this season, and fruit borne on the tip of branches are vulnerable to wind damage. That said, the pear was bred for high heat conditions and to retain its blush during such conditions. Its blush intensity is higher than that of its blush pear counterparts, and is only marketed as a Cheeky® at more than approximately 20% blush covering. Less coloured fruit are sold as Cape Rose pears.

The blush on Rosemarie and Flamingo is much less intense and has a tendency to diminish under high temperatures. Unblushed Rosemarie and Flamingo pears are exported as Sempre pears.

The Cheeky® box - note the trifoliate leaves of the taaibos shrub (Searsia pyroides), a graphic reference to the cultivar's breeder, Taaibos Human

Market for pears
“The European market is good and stable but it’s not fireworks, it’s not knocking out the lights. I do think that the effect of the exchange rate will be pronounced this season. We’re very dependent on the exchange rate,” says Christo Strydom. Wolfpack only packs pears, six to eight months of the year, and markets them as well. They focus on exports because locally the large apple producers supply supermarkets with their smaller pear requirements.

Apart from the pear-loving Europeans, who take 95% of Cheeky® stock, some volumes were sent to Russia last year.

Cheeky in other territories
For the moment the only commercial production takes place in South Africa. The two hectares in Chile and the five hectares in Spain won’t go commercial for the next five years.

“We’re planning to establish four hectares of Cheeky® in Italy for demonstration purposes,” says Dr Leon von Mollendorff of Culdevco, the company that handles the commercialisation of varieties bred by the ARC. “The feedback we’re getting from the trial blocks is extremely promising. For the moment, though, the South African industry is still in a position to dictate the Cheeky® market, and this year the harvest is looking particularly good.”

For more information:
Christo Strydom
Wolfpack (Wolseley Fruit Packers)
Tel: +27 23 231 1066

Taaibos Human
Agricultural Research Council
Tel: +27 21 809 3100

Dr Leon von Mollendorff
Tel: +27 21 870 2925

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