Tzaneen Blueberries will stop harvesting their 2020 blueberry crop today, an unusually late ending for them but one in which rain during harvesting “played havoc” with their crop, says Henry Hayes, blueberry farmer.
It all started with great fruit set and brilliant quality, he says, and everything went well up until week 36 and two rain events, very heavy precipitation exceptionally early in the season.
“When the rains started we had to fly out the crop because of quality concerns. By and large it’s dry when we usually harvest,” Henry explains. “When there is this amount of rain during harvesting the sugars drop and the fruit becomes bland. The shelf life is much shortened and the fruit just becomes soft. We exported only 54% of our total crop.”
Even some new varieties that they had thought would be “bullet-proof”, succumbed to the impact of rain.
The ratio of air freight to sea freight for his fruit was 69:31 this season, only because of the rain (and this in a year when air freight is much more expensive than usual). In an ideal season, he’d like to send 70% to 80% of his berries by ship because it makes a huge difference to farm income, but then they have to be certain of the shelf life, he notes.
Like other blueberry producers in parts of northern South Africa that has had a wet early summer, they were sitting with fruit they couldn’t export. The domestic blueberry price in South Africa has plummeted as additional volumes are diverted away from exports.
Young blueberry plants in substrate at Tzaneen Blueberries
Severe water stress forces reduction in production
Ironically, since heavy rain was the cause of their problem this season, heavy rain is precisely what Tzaneen needs. The area’s dams are at critically low levels: the Tzaneen Dam at 9%, the Ebenezer Dam at 14%.
Below-normal rainfall for the past few years and a concomitant 70% cut to their water allocation of the past few years, forced them at the start of the year to remove 120 tonnes’ worth of production in the form of an older variety that was earmarked to be eventually replaced, but not so abruptly.
“In this area, where there are also many citrus producers, we’ve become pretty good at using our water resources and developing new water resources. Currently we have 30% of our water allocation – if we had 50%, we could get by, although at that level it would still be limiting to expansion."
Going back to the soil
The loss of production has to a small degree been replaced by new plants in pots, but in general Henry is set on expanding openland production.
“We are going back to the soil because we’ve got great soil, and pots and substrate are just so expensive. Openland production means a huge saving and it gives you a bigger margin of error than you have with a plant in a pot.”
Openland blueberry bushes after pruning at Tzaneen Blueberries
Henry has been growing for Berryworld since 2013, working closely with their technical team. They are putting a “terrible” season behind them, he says, and instead focusing on the new season and new plantings.
“When you grow in this area you grow for the early shoulder of the market once the European season is over, so any future expansion will have early varietals as its focus. We don’t want to be picking after September in Tzaneen.”
Blueberry oversupply in Europe
He’s not sorry to exit the stage now, as massive volumes of Peruvian blueberries have been causing an oversupply in Europe since week 44 but this experience will be part of the evolution of the South African blueberry industry, he believes.
He is of the opinion that economic necessity is going to demand increasing cooperation and information-sharing within the sector.
“Blueberry exporters will have to start to push into new markets, to Russia and the Middle East in a big way, as well as into the Far East. It would be nice,” he muses, “to compete with Peru on the Eastern Seaboard of the US.”
“It’s not a great story at the moment but it was caused by an abnormal occurrence. You bet I’m happy to conclude this season and to move forward.”
For more information: