It’s not raining enough in the Eastern Cape and it’s definitely going to have an impact on volumes, citrus growers say. By the end of February there will be more certainty on what can be expected from the citrus season, but across the Eastern Cape – in the Gamtoos Valley, Sundays River Valley and inland in the Kat River Valley – the mood is cautious.
Irrigation canal in the Sundays River Valley
Amid temperatures easily past 40°C, some citrus farmers in the Hankey/Patensie area have already depleted their water quota (already cut by 60%), seven months into the water year. The majority of citrus growers there still have water left, but few foresee that they’ll have enough to irrigate right up to the start of the new water year on 1 July, when allocations are renewed.
“In the Cambria area in the Baviaanskloof on the Patensie side there is very little to no water,” says Anton Bester, logistics manager for Orange Chain in Patensie. “It’s a massive problem, but I think farmers will help each other to get through.“
The Kouga Dam is about 40% fuller than January last year (at its lowest it was 6% full) which is a source of huge relief, but the level has since January been dropping steadily because of irrigation and bulk water usage, and there hasn’t been substantial rain since November last year. Farmers also depend on boreholes, where possible.
Traditionally in the Gamtoos Valley vegetables have nicely filled the months without citrus, November to February. “Vegetable production in our area has plummeted. If 20% of farmers still have vegetables this season, that would be a lot,“ Anton says.
Fruit drop due to strong, warm wind
The expected fruit drop of November was this season exacerbated by very strong and persistent wind across the Eastern Cape, which furthermore causes wind blemishes and drives up evapotranspiration.
Frikkie du Preez of Kouga Boerdery says that his citrus orchards flowered beautifully with good fruit set, but warm bergwinds and heat in November dented the high expectations he had of his lemons and late Midknights. “We had good rain in October and November last year but since then just 3mm here, 5mm there. If the rain doesn’t pick up soon, the situation could become critical.”
In the Sundays River Valley growers are more secure in their water access, which comes from the Gariep Dam (69% full), but temperatures have been edging close to 45°C and winds add to the desiccating stress on trees.
Citrus orchard in the Kat River Valley
In October the interior of the Eastern Cape experienced extreme heat for seven days running, coupled with very low humidity, during a crucial period of fruit set. Producers in the Kat River Valley do not have water restrictions, but it is very dry and heavy irrigation pressure is making the currently 78% level of the Kat River dam drop quickly.
The impact of this heatwave in the Kat River Valley is expected to be felt on navels, lemons, clementines and perhaps satsumas, although with the latter it’s difficult to distinguish between the impact of the heat and the fact that it’s an ‘off’ year anyway, says Shaun Brown of Eden Agri Services near Fort Beaufort.
Across the province citrus producers expect that the coming harvest will be below where they would’ve liked to be, partly as a residual effect of the drought of the past three years and partly because of the dry summer thus far.