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“Not fun”: South African farmers juggle an early spring heat wave and daily power cuts

The South African Weather Service predicts that a heatwave over Gauteng, eastern NorthWest Province, the eastern Mpumalanga Highveld as well as over the south-western bushveld of Limpopo, will run until the end of the week with no imminent rain predicted.

It comes at a critical time for many fruit crops: harvesting of early stonefruit, blueberries and cherries has started, and the heat hastens the ripening of blueberries and strawberries.

Meanwhile citrus growers are irrigating flat-out, Justin Chadwick from the Citrus Growers’ Association told the Daily Maverick earlier this week. In the Groblersdal/Marble Hall area citrus orchards have recently finished flowering and are setting fruit.

There’s not yet alarm among citrus growers about the amount of fruit drop; after next month's abscission period growers will have a clearer picture of crop ahead, notes Maritza Roux, head of technical operations at Freshworld. Loadshedding plus high temperatures could have a big impact on fruit drop.

The Groblersdal/Marble Hall table grape crops are not far away, with vines flourishing under the hot sunshine and growing fast, a grape grower says. Around 500 hectares of grapes were removed in this summer rainfall area and in the interim replanted with cash crops like pumpkins, watermelons and tomatoes, all crops that need daily irrigation.

Combating a heatwave and daily power cuts is “not fun”, says George Maxted of Harvestfresh, a vegetable grower. He notes that too much product coming on simultaneously could create a supply gap later.

“The heat accelerates fruit ripening before the cell enlargement process has been completed,” explains Koos van der Merwe who grows very early peaches and nectarines in the Limpopo Waterberge, among the first in the country. “It also causes the pressure on fruit to drop quicker and fall outside export specifications.”

But the crux of the problem currently, he adds, is loadshedding: South Africa’s programme of reducing load on the electrical grid through planned power cuts.

Irrigation hamstrung by power cuts
Every farmer contacted by FreshPlaza concurs: experiencing a heatwave along with loadshedding is “a double whammy”, says PP Roets of Roslé Farming in Groblersdal.

Temperatures have touched on 40°C in that area, well above normal springtime temperatures, and remain above 30°C well into the evening, farmers say. Consequently now they’d like to irrigate more than usual, and some farmers also maintain a capacity buffer for exactly these situations – but as a result of power cuts, they cannot make use of this buffer.

“We keep this buffer to get us through times like this – but then Eskom has to play along,” he says. Eskom is South Africa's state-owned electricity supplier.

Farmers lose a number of working hours every day due to power cuts and cannot get through their irrigation cycles, forcing them to irrigate at all hours when they have electricity including at night, which brings with it other security complications.

Maintaining the cold chain has become hugely expensive, diesel generators a sine qua non of fruit production in South Africa these days.

Pack stores run on a stop-start schedule, losing packing time (even if staff do other work like picking) which necessitates overtime work, an added expense to farming enterprises under severe financial pressure.