"This season we farmed for size" - Banhoek Fruit Packers/Mount Joy Farm, Stellenbosch"

Picturesque plum packing in the Boland

At the picturesque Banhoek Fruit Packers outside Stellenbosch plums from various producers are packed, including 130,000 cartons from the adjacent Mount Joy Farm and 250,000 cartons in total. There’s a lively expansion in the plum sector, with new orchards offsetting the impact of the drought, and Banhoek Fruit expects to pack about 300,000 cartons next year.

Here too the season is a week or so later than usual, with the first volumes of Honeymoon, African Rose and Pioneer already in, followed by Sapphire and Purple Majesty. On Mount Joy plum volumes could be down by 8%, but here in the Banhoek Valley the water situation isn’t as dire as elsewhere. A stream runs through the farm, runoff from the mountains filled their farm dams by early winter and they are part of the Banhoek Irrigation Scheme, although at the moment the latter allocates them water rights for only 9ha (of their total 37ha) this season. 

“This season we farmed for size,” remarks Wessel Erasmus, packhouse manager at Banhoek Fruit, referring to the oft-mentioned rigorous stonefruit pruning this season. “We focused on double-AAs and thus far, we are peaking on double-AAs.” Coupled with an empty European market, so far, so good – especially compared to 2016, a stressful year for plum growers due to size issues and competition from Italian Angeleno plums. Their first yellow plums have recently been sent by airfreight to Dubai; interestingly, South African consumers don’t appreciate the value of yellow plums like their international counterparts. In South Africa there is a perception that red plums are sweeter than yellow which is, according to Wessel Erasmus and Ruan van Graan, managing director of Banhoek Fruit, simply not the case. Their planting, however, reflects what consumers want, so the red-to-yellow plum ratio is 70:30.

The Angeleno plum doesn’t suit their valley, it does better in the Koue Bokkeveld (Ceres). And then there’s the brave new world of interspecific plums like the spectacularly successful Flavor Fall and Fall Fiesta. Banhoek Fruit packs the interspecific plums of the Custom Plum Company, holder of Zaiger Genetics’ intellectual property rights for plums in South Africa, exported by Fruits Unlimited.

Ruan van Graan, MD of Banhoek Fruit Packers, with Wessel Erasmus, packhouse manager

Yellow plums
Yellow plums have lost some of their popularity of a few years ago for a number of reasons, amongst them when early yellow varieties, like the South African-bred Sundew, were harvested before optimal ripeness and sent too early. 

However, the Stargrow Honeymoon variety, another yellow plum, does well for Banhoek Fruit and the yield is plentiful this year. Honeymoon finds ready markets in the Middle East (Dubai) and the Far East. Spain always has room for large, yellow plums.

They’re ambiguous about Pioneer, another South African cultivar, a red plum. “The market has been tired of Pioneer for 10 or 15 years but they’re still taking it because it’s an early red plum. We feel it still has a place in that window,” explains Erasmus. “The problem is that it colours up unevenly. It is harvested when yellow, we colour it up for five or six days at 14°C, and it’s still a bit green by the time it goes out. On the ship a dual regime is followed but Pioneer is unreliable, sometimes the colouring is patchy. But it gives high tonnage, early in the season, which is its redeeming feature.”

The packhouse

Delicate plum packing
Plums are delicate fruit. They don’t like water, so they’re tipped dry onto the packing line. Then they don’t like a rough ride on the packing line, so a plum packing line is as straight and short as possible. Interspecific plums are treated even more delicately, with brushes lifted to disturb the glaucous bloom as little as possible.

The plum’s distinctive glaucous bloom, which has an antimicrobial function, makes optic sorting of plums a more difficult proposition than for other types of fruit: a fingerprint left in the bloom is often interpreted as a mark by the camera eye. At Banhoek Fruit an optic sorter is not in use, but they tend to see that as one of their strengths. 

“The advantage of a smaller packhouse is our intensive quality control. It’s easy to continually keep an eye on exactly what’s coming in and going through the system,” says Ruan van Graan. He and Wessel Erasmus joined Banhoek Fruit last year and have been at the helm of the company’s expansion plans.

A straight packline for the delicate task of sorting and packing plums

Mount Joy Farm’s plum harvest ends with African Delight in February, but the packhouse continues until Easter with Boschendal’s late cultivar plums. The farm, in the crook of high mountains on three sides, is surrounded by wine vineyards, some olive trees and fynbos. The surreptitious visitations of porcupines and honey badgers at night to carry off fallen fruit are sympathetically tolerated. Fortuitously, plums are picked before birds are interested.

“Our focus here at Banhoek is the condition in which the plum will arrive on the market. With that, we take no chances,” says Wessel Erasmus.

For more information:
Ruan van Graan
Banhoek Fruit Packers
Tel: +27 21 885 2635

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