Early stone fruit season hampers South African imports

The early start to this year's stone fruit harvest in South Africa resulted in lighter crops and smaller sizes, but shippers are optimistic about volumes and fruit sizes going into 2015.

Harvesting of stone fruit in South Africa got off to a very early start this year, with most of the commodities being harvested between 7 – 10 days earlier than normal. Due to the earlier start, larger volumes have been shipped to date in comparison with last season.

Apricot volumes did not materialize (20% down vs previous year) due to lighter fruit set in combination with smaller sizes. Rain during the harvesting season also had a negative impact on export volumes. Due to this, volumes shipped to the UK, EU and Middle East were down.

In an attempt to improve the eating quality of the early South African plum varieties like Pioneer and Sapphire, stricter inspection methods, to determine average sugars, have been implemented. This, in combination with the smaller fruit sizes, also had a negative impact on early export volumes.
Due to the decision of certain European discounters and importers not to accept Pioneer plums this season and to restrict the volume on the B and C size fruit, less volume up until Week 51, were shipped to Europe in comparison with last season and more volume were allocated to the UK and Middle East.

Due to South Africa’s involvement in several international breeding programs as well as the local ARC program, the early Peach quality and varietal offer is quickly busy improving. A lot of these new, low chill varieties tend to have very good fruit size and enables the industry to supply Peach into all the respective markets. Up until Week 51 more Peach has been shipped to the UK in comparison with last season and less fruit to Europe and the Middle East.

Due to the early start Nectarine fruit sizes were also under pressure. Unfavorable weather conditions in our early production areas also contributed to variation in maturity and sugar content and had a direct impact on export volumes. Currently there is a good demand for good quality nectarines. In general, the mid to late nectarine crop is looking very promising with reference to volumes and fruit sizes, according to one South African exporter.

Despite challenges with sizing and volumes, the quality of the fruit in general has been good, with the exception of a little bit of decay on the early nectarine and peach arrivals due to the rain.

Except for the challenging weather in the beginning of the season weather conditions are now promising and contribute to good sugars and color. While the early part of the stone fruit season was characterized by a shortage of fruit, exporters are positive about the volume and size offer going into January.

An early shortage of fruit resulted in higher prices, but those prices are starting to come down as volumes are busy increasing. Prices are now following trends similar to those from the 2011-2012 season, but returns are still better because of a more favorable exchange rate. Prices in the United Kingdom, in particular, have been good when compared to the rest of Europe. Sales in Europe this time of year are usually pretty sluggish, but shippers expect demand to pick up in January.

Substantial volumes have been shipped to the Middle East that is currently starting to reflect in the returns, although the Middle East tends to stay an important market segment for South African stone fruit. Due to the size requirements of the Far East not big volumes yet has been shipped to this market and therefore prices tend to keep up.

A stone fruit commodity that has drawn a lot of interest in Europe has been the flat peach. While there is a lot of interest in planting these varieties in South Africa, limited plant material is currently available due to quarantine limitations.