In the Robertson area of the Western Cape lemons and clementines and Novas are being harvested at the farms of Lucerne Agri, and with little wind damage during the growing season, the crop is clean and packouts are high.
“There's uncertainty ahead regarding market prices,” notes Juan-Ivan Smuts, managing director of the almost century-old agricultural enterprise that grows a comprehensive range of fruit and vegetables. “The harbours are still a dilemma but the one thing that hurts is the exchange rate: the Rand is at its strongest level since 2019.”
In the Boland they have established a combination of soft citrus and lemons, and this year they are establishing Valencias to spread risk. “We're seeing potential in certain late Valencia types, and our area is very late. This will be our first foray into Valencias,” he says, noting that last season demonstrated that there will always be a place in the sun for eating and juicing oranges to provide vitamin C.
Client relationships stretching back over three decades
Soon their mid-season mandarins will follow, ending with Nadorcotts which are mostly marketed into branded platforms like the ClemenGold and Halo brands, along with the mid-season Leanri mandarin.
"With the extensive citrus plantings happening across South-Africa, it is becoming more and more important for us to position ourselves to try and get as close as possible to the end customer," Juan-Ivan explains. "The focus for us will always be to ensure that we find appropriate buyers for every single fruit in the bin, and this is made possible by a dedicated supporting in-house marketing team along with the AnB PM team making sure that the local fruit is also placed into sustainable programmes."
He continues: “The diversification of our business is definitely helping with the listing of new lines with retailors as we have existing relationships with certain clients for over 35 years on a wide range of products.”
Tomatoes compensate for disappointing stonefruit season
Lucerne Agri is one of South Africa's largest tomato producers.
The tomato season in the Western Cape will be finished in about three weeks’ time, but this year Lucerne Fresh's tomato retail programme will continue through a partnership with outgrowers in the winter-producing areas of the Mpumalanga Lowveld, as well as in East London.
A few months ago they opened a packing/value add facility in Johannesburg for the tomatoes grown by their northern outgrowers, which will enable them to pack a large assortment of other products grown by the group.
Rain in the north of the country during late summer created a gap in tomato volumes a month ago.
“Tomato prices were unbelievable, some of the highest tomato prices we have ever experienced,” says Juan-Ivan, adding that they were themselves not totally exempt from the effect of climate as a cool autumn has brought the tomato season earlier to a close. “Our production also wasn't quite where we normally are, but fortunately prices made up for it.”
On stone fruit, the story was reversed: “The stonefruit harvest was fantastic, the quality and sizing were excellent but unfortunately there was too much on the market and the demand was absolutely pathetic in Europe and actually everywhere, even in South East Asia and in the UK.”
It was one of the coldest years in the Northern Hemisphere coupled with shipping delays and vessel bunch-ups, negatively affecting the market. The majority of the very large fruit is sold on the wholesale market but the closure of catering and hotels had a devastating effect on the sales of the large stonefruit.
Late avocado window for the Cape
Lucerne Agri has acquired a new farm in Stormsvlei, close to Riviersonderend, where they are the first growers in the area to establish avocados on a large scale.
The first phase of their avocado plantings will extend to 100ha, almost all Hass, for the late window of October to November, when the local avocado market is very attractive.
“We have found a balance between high-density and conventional training systems, and because it's a new project we approached it a bit more conventionally. Our planting is a lot more like a citrus spacing than traditional avocado spacing. We farm a lot of stonefruit, so we are very adapt to pruning and manipulation. With closer plantings we should be able to take off higher volumes earlier and keep the tree volumes under control.”
The first crop will be taken off this year from the approximately 30ha of Hass they have already planted.
“Then we want to look how we can use a cultivar or two at the start and one or two cultivars at the end of the avocado season to stretch this window a bit longer, coupled with pruning manipulation,” Juan-Ivan explains.
"Around Robertson there are a few old avocado blocks, but given new developments in irrigation, pruning techniques and avocado genetics allow us the opportunity to grow these orchards without too many issues."