In the Western Cape it’s a good navel quality year, but, alas, a lot of wind late last year as well as good growth conditions following several years of drought have led to unusually large sizes. The navel season is in its final two weeks, and it’s uncertain whether the South African industry will be able to reach the estimated 24 million 15kg equivalent export cartons.
Whereas normally in the Citrusdal area the size distribution peaks around 72, 64, 88, this year 70% of the fruit are counts 64 and larger and there are navels “the size of ostrich eggs - counts 36, even some 32s,” says Gabrie van Eeden, chairperson of Goede Hoop Fruit.
“The European and US markets want a distribution of 70% consisting of counts 72 and smaller, up to count 105, but this season is in total disproportion to what the market wants. Canada will take large fruit but it’s a small market, so you basically only have the Far East that takes larger fruit, although more towards medium sizes, and then Russia and Europe, to a degree.”
“In the Western Cape we have very low export packouts because of wind damage, the same as in the Eastern Cape, which is a pity because the internal quality is very good. Moreover, a larger fruit tends to have a rougher skin than a smaller fruit.”
Marketing of large fruit led to some ill-advised decisions
In the broader South African industry the pressure created by the season’s size distribution has resulted in a lot of navels that don’t meet the exacting standards of the Chinese market, even class 2 fruit, nevertheless being sent there. It’s a market used to very competitive product, demanding a perfect fruit. Initially the expectation was that it was going to be a strong market.
“The Chinese market has a good price for a good product but there’s no price for a poor product. It’s a six or a nix,” Gabrie explains. “The effect is that it adversely affects market sentiment and pulls down prices. They sit with Australia so close to them, and we’re creating an opportunity for Australia in this way. You just don’t put down substandard fruit in China, which is a hard lesson some traders are learning this season.”
As for the European market, he points to the difficult season experienced by Spanish growers. “And then the South African crop arrives, with Spanish fruit still in the market as well as good quality Egyptian Valencias still available until late in the season. The pull for our navels from Europe has really been sluggish. The European market was never quite ready for us, and never hungry for our fruit.”
The Russian market is under a lot of pressure, partly because of the simultaneous arrival of shipments played havoc with arrival schedules. It’s a market that takes large sizes, but demand for citrus has been dampened by the particularly hot summer, and traders who have been sending fruit to Russia without a prior order have contributed to the oversupply of the market.
Valencia outlook more positive
The Valencia season is expected to be an improvement on the navel season, starting week 33 or 34. Not only do Valencias tend to be smaller, but Valencia orchards were less affected by the wind last November because the fruit was smaller than navels were at that stage, so packouts will probably be better. Also, because the fruit is meant for juicing, the market tends to be a bit more forgiving of wind blemishes.
“We’re really looking forward to the start of the Valencia season.”
The latest Valencia export estimate is 48.2 million 15kg equivalent cartons.
Goede Hoop Fruit, which includes Goede Hoop Citrus, not only offers citrus, but they’re still sending apples and pears too, while Cape Town Harbour’s facilities have been placed under pressure by citrus from the Eastern Cape arriving there to avoid the problems at Port Elizabeth Harbour.
“Buyers are regarding the situation with our ports with concern. There are still vessels that skip ports in an attempt to maintain schedule integrity.”
It has been really difficult to meet all programme commitments on time. He says that it has happened that vessels have skipped the UK, only docking in Europe, which leaves South African exporters with the difficult decision regarding fruit meant for the UK. “Do you now offload in Europe and take it by truck back to the UK? Do you leave it on the ship to be delivered to the UK on the return journey? And remember, nothing stands somewhere for free. Also, the documentation was made out for the UK, not for the EU, making it a very complicated situation.”
He is very concerned by the impact this could have on South Africa’s reputation to be able to deliver product on time, and the possibility that buyers start looking elsewhere for alternative suppliers from, for instance, South America.
“The Port Elizabeth situation will have to be rectified. Strong citrus growth is expected over the coming years, and the agriculture sector is a major creator of employment opportunities and foreign currency to the economy. We cannot afford to disqualify ourselves because of logistical and labour challenges.”