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Challenging season for fruit production around Ceres

Ceres Fruit Growers (Pty) Ltd, situated in Ceres, is the packing and storage facility of the Ceres Group of Companies, owned by its 42 producer-shareholders, who are mainly from the Ceres area. Ceres Fruit Growers (CFG) handles approximately 120,000 tonnes of apples and pears in a normal year, of which 70% is marketed by Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing and 30% by Corefruit.

Apart from CFG’s 50% stake in Tru-Cape Fruit Marketing, there are interests in fruit processing (Ceres Fruit Processors), packing material (APL Cartons) and logistics (Link Supply Chain Management).

Boxes of Royal Beaut, packed at Ceres Fruit Growers

Due to current climatic conditions the peak season will likely be shorter this year. From January to August, Ceres Fruit Growers’ four packhouses are in operation for 24 hours per weekday. For this season, CFG estimates approximately 103,000 tonnes, which is 16% less than the tonnes of the previous year. The main reason for the decrease in volumes is the current drought and water situation.

Managing the drought

The Ceres area is strongly dependent on rain (which has been in short supply for the past four winters) and boreholes. “The four surrounding areas to Ceres are the Warm Bokkeveld in Ceres and Prince Alfred Hamlet, the Bo-Swaarmoed area, the Witzenberg Valley and the Koue Bokkeveld. Consequently, all four have distinct water scenarios in the current drought situation. Within these different areas, the situation even differs between neighbouring farms,” Francois Malan, managing director of Ceres Fruit Growers explains.

Three weeks ago the Ceres area received between 10 and 40mm of rain, reducing the need to irrigate orchards. There are some orchard blocks that haven’t received a drop of irrigated water this entire summer; its fruit were all removed early on to help the trees to survive. In total, 150ha of orchards were completely removed and chipped up as mulch for the remaining orchards.

Flowering and fruit set initially pointed to an exceptional potential topfruit harvest. Chemical thinning is done cautiously in Ceres, given the risk of frosts until September. “We’re 15% to 20% down in volume, and fruit sizes are smaller, which reduces economic yield, so in fact, financially the impact isn’t just 15% to 20% but more than that, due to the fruit size profile,” explains Frederick Odendaal, manager of Producer Services/ Growers’ Direct at CFG.

Ceres Fruit Growers' bi-coloured apple packhouse

The orchards didn’t always produce the expected crop, proportionate to the water allocation. “On some blocks that received 40% to 60% of their normal water supply, where we thought a 'lighter' harvest would be produced, fruit didn’t size as expected and a lot have gone for juicing,” says De Kock Hamman, technical advisor at Ceres Fruit Growers. 

“At the start of harvesting (with Rosemarie pears), it was clear that fruit just weren’t sizing and coupled with that, the season started about two weeks later than usual. A cool early summer up until mid-December was followed by above average summer temperatures that lasted into February. When temperatures reach above 25°C, trees are transpiring vastly, prohibiting fruit growth. This season there just was not enough water to cool down the atmosphere in the orchards. In order to save water, irrigation was performed at night. Since we can experience high temperatures in Ceres (around 40°C is not unusual) farms are mainly making use of micro irrigation, in order to soften the micro climate in the orchards. Another advantage of micro irrigation is that it helps prevent frost damage, when some pulse irrigation is applied very early on mornings just before frost is expected, to mix the layers of air,” De Kock continues.

Fruit colour

“We’re quite excited about the Kanzi™ and the Jazz™ apple cultivars. Due to the day-night temperature differences, these fruit coloured quite well, compared to other years,” says De Kock Hamman. “In addition, the quality of the fruit is quite good in the drought situation. Fungal diseases, for instance, are practically non-existent.”

The first small volumes of Bigbucks are being packed at CFG. Thus far a 95% packout has been achieved with the cultivar. Following the initial success of Bigbucks, further plantings are planned for the future.

“Another unique feature of Ceres Fruit Growers is the Royal Beaut, which was discovered by local farmer and CFG shareholder Robert Zulch,” Francois Malan, managing director, points out. On the day of FreshPlaza's visit, the highly coloured Royal Gala mutation was being packed. Royal Beaut apples have 80 to 100% block colour. "The Royal Beaut performs quite well in the Ceres area, resulting in CFG having a 75:25 ratio of Royal Beaut to other Royal Gala strains." 

Flow-wrapping apples for UK supermarkets

“Initially we were somewhat concerned at the 'above average' temperatures but over the past month the temperature has started to variate which made a big difference and it has since turned out to be a very good year for colour on all the bi-coloured apples that are harvested later in the year,” Francois Malan continues.

“With the frost damage to apple production in Europe, good opportunities exist for South Africa but the European consumer prefers large apples, that we have low volumes of,” says Frederick Odendaal. “But better colour on bi-coloured apples will definitely help. For instance, from a bin of Cripps Pink you’ll pack a lot of Pink Lady for UK supermarket programmes this year.”

A river of Royal Beaut

Promising Fuji varieties 

“With many of our varieties we made the correct decision at the right time, like to plant cultivars like Royal Beaut, or Rosy Glow,” De Kock Hamman points out. “With Fuji it’s different. The older Fuji strains develop quality defects in our area. However, there are two new local and very promising test trials of Fuji mutations that we’re very excited about. The test orchard blocks are looking excellent and promising to plant in future.”

False Codling Moth and fruit fly 

About seven years ago, producers, in conjunction with Hortgro, implemented the fruit fly management programme in Ceres. Not only did the existent fruit fly species decrease markedly but the chance of the Oriental fruit fly (new to the Western Cape) multiplying in the Ceres area, is slim.

Similarly, false codling moth used to be prevalent over the past few years but rigorous programmes to curtail the problem have been successful in the area. 

“With the low crop in the Western Cape, there will be good marketing opportunities by using a twelve-month marketing strategy, if the quality of the fruit allows it,” Francois Malan concludes. “There’s currently a fair oversupply of small pears and small apples but due to limited fruit from South Africa, in general, opportunities can arise, primarily in the Middle East and the Far East. One just has to remain patient.”

Frederick Odendaal, Producer Services, Francois Malan, Managing Director of CFG and De Kock Hamman, Technical Advisor

For more information:

Francois Malan

Ceres Fruit Growers

Tel: +27 23 316 9400


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