The Eastern Cape Midlands is one of the Eastern Cape’s three main citrus production areas, an area with higher rainfall than the other two but also more prone to natural disasters like frost damage and hail.
Outside Fort Beaufort, on Riverside farm, part of Lona Citrus, Errol Hewson oversees production stretched over 20km on various farms, some owned by Lona and others by outgrowers. Soft citrus takes centre stage because of the high tonnages and superior internal quality that is achieved here.
Their cultivar portfolio is made up of 53% soft citrus, a portion that’ll probably move slightly upwards, 27% navels (due to come down marginally) and a shade under 20% lemons. (It’s not solely a citrus farm: old pecan orchards are harvested for the local market and avocados go countrywide to retailers, but the avocado market is very flat this year.)
They are waiting for the last of their allocated Nadorcotts and earlier this year Errol travelled to Israel to see firsthand how they deal with the challenges presented by Or mandarins. “It’s one of the more difficult varieties of soft citrus to produce, you’ve got to control its tendency to fruit setting problems, but I think we’re on the right track now,” he says. Does he share the view of some growers that the taste of an Or mandarin is superlative? “Let’s put it this way: if my wife wants soft citrus in the house, it’s this one.”
Riverside farm, in citrus production for the past 122 years already, lies alongside the Kat River. Some of the oldest navel orchards, still bearing, date back to 1946. Because of the risk of frost (it can get down to -6°C), there is a focus on early maturing fruit in the low-lying areas to get the harvest off before July. Later varieties can be planted on higher ground. Last year a lot of year-old trees were lost in a late frost.
No citrus block on the farm is under net – yet. “Our chaps are busy putting up nets in the north and then they’ll start on this farm. We’ll be getting three advantages by putting up nets: hail protection, since we do fall in a hail area, and then wind damage which is probably the single biggest cull factor we have. Thirdly it’ll protect against cross-pollination between clementines and Nadorcotts by keeping out bees.”
Nadorcotts colouring up
“Satsumas keep us guessing”
The clementine harvest on the farm finished the week before last, preceded by Satsumas. “Production-wise and packout-wise it’s been looking wonderful but we haven’t had a very smooth start. Our Satsumas have been landing badly, with a lot of cold damage and we’re not sure why. Quality was superior to last year. Production is up this year and with a heavier crop there is thinner skin and we’ve been having a bit of rain since December. Coupled with that there’s the lower shipping temperatures with the FCM protocol, but everyone is shipping at lower temperatures, so it can’t be that. It seems like the Western Cape was having a better go of Satsumas this year.”
“Satsumas keep us guessing each year. In the packhouse they look great but they don’t always seem to like their trip across to the UK and Russia.”
“We’re busy in our lemon orchards for 90% of the season,” he says. “Early in the season we pick them lime green and at the moment they’re harvested yellow, but due to the oversupply there’s been a bit of a shift in the market. They want yellow lemons early in the season as well, which puts a bit of pressure on us to get a yellow lemon earlier so it has tightened our ability to spread our lemons. With the huge bulk of lemons in the Eastern Cape coming in June you need to spread it out.”
They generally don’t degreen their lemons, they haven’t needed to, but it is something they’ll doubtless have to start doing in future and, he notes, degreening techniques have improved much over the past couple of years.
This season the Eastern Cape citrus industry hasn’t only had to contend with possible natural disasters.
Riverside was in the news recently when their packhouse was burned down in an arson attack at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, five weeks ago. Fortunately staff were sitting outside but large amounts of stock were destroyed – they only had two days to go on Satsumas – as well as their computer servers.
Due to capacity constraints in the Fort Beaufort area, they are now obliged to truck their fruit to packhouses in the Sundays River Valley, more than 200km southwest, but the weeklong strike in the latter region threw a further spanner in the wheel, not only in delaying packing but harvesting too, because of a shortage of empty bins. Fortunately the strike has been resolved and citrus facilities are running as before.
It is as yet unsure whether Riverside will rebuild its packhouse; insurers are still conducting their investigation into the extent of the losses. Prosecution of the arsonist is expected to follow. For the moment the loss of the packhouse translates into the loss of employment in an area where there are few other economic opportunities.
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