At Modderdrift in the Hex River Valley they’re briskly packing table grapes for mostly the UK and Canada at the moment, while demand from the US is much higher than usual.
Right: Modderdrift Sweet Joy
Their season was late – up to three weeks later on some varieties, and it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, given the recent almost-simultaneous arrival of three vessels in Europe, carrying grapes from across South Africa. This includes the fruit that received rain in Limpopo and the Orange River and early in the Western Cape’s grape harvest.
“The next vessels are carrying great fruit from the Western Cape, they are on their way to the UK and Europe, arriving within the next week or two. The Western Cape had rain in week 1 and usually the week after rain is problematic but thereafter the quality improves a lot so the fruit arriving soon will be much better.”
Modderdrift Sweet Globe: white gold in the market (photos supplied by Jacques Beukes)
“You’re always packing only the best fruit you can, otherwise you know you can get hurt in the market. The weather over the next two weeks is predicted to be sunny and dry and if the rain stays away, I foresee very good arrivals on many of our premium varieties like Sweet Globe, Sweet Joy, Sweet Sapphire, Autumn Crisp, Scarlotta, Crimson and Allison.”
Rain in Chile opens space for grapes in the USA
“We’ve sent grapes to the United States in the past, but the demand is much higher at the moment."
“Chile will still be supplying the market with grapes, but this season there will be a question mark over the quality of their fruit at the back of everyone’s minds. Chile would’ve sent some of their fruit to China which they now won’t do because of the length of the journey, so they could be sending some of that fruit to the USA, but it won’t be of the quality they usually send.”
He notes that South African grape growers have also been (or are) in Chile’s position: last season the Hex River had unseasonal rain during the harvest and a few weeks ago the Orange River experienced the same.
“It’s not a nice position to be in, given the high annual input costs and knowing that there will be no return on your investment due to circumstances completely out of your control.”
Is there, in his experience, any sympathy from the market in such a case? “No,” he answers without hesitation. “The only sympathy on the market are the forces of supply and demand.”
Premium white varieties "are like white gold"
"Everyone is looking for premium white varieties like Sweet Globe and Autumn Crisp, those varieties are on everyone’s minds. It’s like white gold. Not a lot have been planted, there aren’t a lot of volumes of Sweet Globe, but we’re fortunate to have quite a bit of Sweet Globe and Autumn Crisp. A few seasons ago we invested in these new cultivars and we place them carefully in markets where we’ll get a premium, like in Canada and the USA. Of course you always try and also keep your established customers satisfied.”
The United States is a steri market and the steri process puts more pressure on grapes.
The logistics channel is longer, with fewer vessels sailing between South Africa and North America, so it sometimes happens that fruit have to wait a while before loading. This has a dissuasive effect on exporters, along with the requirement to already be registered for the US market before the season starts.
Jacques says they make sure their registrations for all steri markets (like Israel and China) never lapse and they maintain the highest accreditation standards at their packhouses, in order to nimbly take advantage of unforeseen opportunities like this season. Their buyers in Canada and the USA prefer getting grapes from British Retail Consortium-accredited (BRC) packhouses. This process comes at a high cost and demands the fulltime attention of two to three staff members and then, he adds, one expects to get a premium for the product.
In Canada the market started slowly for the Western Cape but it’s been becoming increasingly receptive for their grapes.
”But you can’t be putting your fruit into the open market, you have to go to their retailers, your fruit has to have a home before you can send it. Again, it comes back to supply and demand: if everyone is thinking Canada is such a wonderful market and everyone’s just sending to Canada, the price will drop.”
The wholesale market in the Far East is under great pressure due to Covid. “We see it in Europe and we see it in the UK as well.”
Right: Modderdrift's Sweet Sapphire
Modderdrift sends a high proportion of their grapes to the UK. “My personal opinion is that Brexit is going to have a negative impact on the long-term. And now with Covid – it doesn’t make the whole Brexit scenario easier for the UK.”
“The markets everywhere are fairly docile, there’s enough fruit on the market, so it’s not necessary to pay more. There will be a higher price point for fruit like Sweet Globe or Autumn Crisp because there isn’t a lot of that, but the world is under pressure and it’s not going to change overnight. One has to ensure that you’re farming for the best quality at the lowest production cost. If you can function at that level for the next few years you will survive.”
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