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Farming with kiwis: All you need to know – Food For Mzansi

Kiwi farming is a small industry in South Africa, but has big potential for growth. Photo:Supplied/Food for Mzansi
Across the world, the kiwifruit is synonymous with New Zealand. It is one of the country’s most popular exports, having generated over $1 billion. The fruit however originates from China, and even though New Zealand is the biggest exporter of it, China is still the biggest producer.
Jonathan Trusler, chairman of the South African Kiwi Growers Association (Sakga) and a kiwi farmer based in Magoebaskloof, Limpopo, says that China may be the biggest producer of the fruit, but they do not have a particularly large export market.
“The leading kiwi producers are New Zealand and Italy. China is actually the biggest grower in the world, but they grow largely for the domestic market, so they’re not really exporting.”
In South Africa, growing kiwis is not a new phenomenon. The fruit has found a home in our country for the last 40 years, but the arrival of new kiwi varieties in the last few years has caused an upsurge in kiwi farmers and renewed interest in the commodity as an exciting and potentially lucrative product.
Trusler, a founding member of Sakga, says the organisation started about two years ago. He explains that there was another kiwi growers association before, but it stopped operating somewhere between the 80s and 90s.
“[There are] a lot of the new growers planting the gold [variety] now and we felt like we needed an organisation to represent kiwi growers in South Africa. We do have some green kiwi growers as part of the organisation, as well as gold kiwi growers. And really, it’s just about having a unified voice for growers in South Africa.”
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Trusler says that kiwi farmers are starting to form clusters across the country. He adds that farmers are grouping around White River in Mpumalanga and around his area in Magoebaskloof. There are also farmers clustered in the Richmond area in KwaZulu-Natal, and a few farms around Rawsonville and Grabouw in the Western Cape.
“Obviously, there are a few other outlying farms scattered around, but there are those main, let’s say, hubs of kiwifruit developing now around the new varieties We’re very excited that we can produce a really good kiwifruit here. We’ve got some interesting climates.”
Early harvesting season usually starts from middle to late February, Trusler says. The mid-season harvest is around early to the middle of March, and late-season harvesters can be busy up until late April.
Trusler explains that kiwis love a cold winter, although the new varieties can flourish in a chilly winter. “The green kiwis need more chill, so if you’re looking at the chill units in an area, the green kiwis would usually be 600 to 900 chill units. It’s quite cold. The gold kiwis – and there are a few varieties available commercially in South Africa – generally need a lot [less] chill. The chill requirements for gold kiwis would generally be between 200 and 400 chill units per winter.”
South Africa has a varied climate, so there are farmers who are growing in slightly warmer climates, says Trusler. Since these farmers are very new, their success cannot yet be determined.
Despite having been in the country for 40 years, kiwi farming has stagnated previously. With the success of the new varieties, kiwi farmers are now only learning how to optimise their farming practices around the product.
“There’s still a lot of lessons we’re learning, and a lot of technical things we’re figuring out for ourselves. But the first orchards would be between five to seven years old now, so we’ve had a few seasons of production where we’ve learned some key lessons.”
Trusler cautions that kiwi farming is not an easy crop to grow, as it is quite technical. He says one of the lessons the South African industry is still learning is how to provide the fruit with the ideal amount of nutrition.
“We’re getting better and better, but a lot of our knowledge and information is coming from the traditional kiwi growing areas in New Zealand and in Italy.”
Since our climate is different from those countries, the application of their principles does not necessarily work here.
“We tend to be a bit warmer than those areas, both in the summer and the winter. But particularly we have warm summers compared to other places in the world growing kiwis. We also have mostly summer rainfall areas where we’re growing in South Africa, which is different to most places in Italy and New Zealand, having winter rainfall.”
Regarding inputs, Trusler says organic fertiliser works for his farm, but most producers use conventional fertiliser. Both seem to yield success, he adds, but those inputs are not necessarily what they are focused on in the industry.
“Overall, we’re struggling to go from a smallish fruit to the large fruit, which is standard in the markets. We’re starting to get better and better, but it’s less about inputs and more about [figuring] out the correct pruning methods. Pruning is a very important part of kiwifruit farming and there’s a very important prune that we do in the winter, which will be our main pruning where we’re laying down the new canes for the coming season.”
He says summer pruning is also important, and it is another method that is still in development in the country.
“The summer pruning is something that we’re figuring out more and more and getting better at in terms of managing the cane development during the summer, to give us the best and optimal fruit size at the end of the harvest.”
There are many aspects involved in setting up a new kiwi enterprise, says Trusler. He explains that it is heavy on infrastructure, which is why you cannot really start a kiwi operation on a small budget.
“We highly recommend that new farmers start with orchards where they’ve got net covering and then, in order to get maximum productivity and efficiency, we also then recommend that farmers have a pagoda system.”
The pagoda system, he says, involves the creation of a mesh system where the whole crop is on a flat roof-like area and is elevated about 1.9 m off the ground. “[This] makes the picking very efficient, and your replacement cane then grows above that.”
He says the cost of this infrastructure is quite high, and this is without including your general farm costs and the cost of the variety royalties.
“If you look at the cost of setting up a pagoda system as well as a netted system, that it’s quite an expensive setup. The nets must be quite high, ideally between 4.8 and 5.3 m above ground – then a 20% shade net above that.”
Planting your first kiwifruit orchard can take long to yield results as well, says Trusler. Ideally new farmers should look at planting two-year old rootstock, he advises. “You could then, in theory, get into production within 18 months, but that’ll be a small production. And then the following season that production should start going up. But you’re looking at generally two to three years from planting to getting into production.”
Despite the expense and the long wait from the initial planting to production, Trusler says that kiwifruit can be lucrative if done right.
“I would say [kiwi is] probably one of the most expensive crops in South Africa in terms of set up costs, but the returns are very good. If you get it right and you’ve got a good climate for it, then then you can pay those costs back and be quite profitable. And especially on small scale, at this stage, it is one of the crops in South Africa that you could do quite well on, let’s say, three to five hectares.”
Another important element aspiring farmers need to consider is that kiwi varieties in the country are under royalty. Trulser explains that it is an additional cost you need to consider should you choose to farm with kiwis.
“There’s a number of varieties available for commercial planting at the moment, but these varieties have all been developed in various breeding programmes from around the world by plant breeders who look at plants and how they can crossbreed the basic characteristics of different plants.”
He says plant breeders cross breed favourable characteristics like fruit that has a good gold colour, or fruit that can be harvested early or late. He also says breeding fruit that is of a large size and has a high yield is also a major plant breeder focus.
“But the breeding programmes cost money and there’s intellectual property that is involved in that process. So, you basically need to sign a contract with the variety owners, and they require royalties in order to allow you to plant their variety.”
South Africa’s biggest kiwi market is Europe and the United Kingdom, says Trusler. Because South Africa, New Zealand and Chile all harvest around the same time, these two countries tend to be the local industry’s biggest competition.
However, South Africa has a distinct advantage. “What we’re finding at the moment is that we seem to be able to produce slightly earlier than them. There is a nice little window that exists and we get pretty good returns because we’re able to meet the window that’s got less kiwifruit available when we come into production. So, the market is pretty attractive right now, and that’s I think driving a lot of the new growers planting.”
He also says that the Asian market is growing as well, with many kiwi exports going to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. And while the local industry is still producing a small volume, Trusler is of the opinion that it has the potential to really grow much larger in the next five to ten years.
Surprisingly, most of the local market is made up of imports. The issue, Trusler says, is that the local market requires a consistent volume over a longer period, something the local industry cannot yet provide.
“The challenge for us as local producers is that we are supplying our fruits into a very short window. We can only store the fruit for two to three months. So, in terms of the local supply, we only have fruit available for a short window of the year, whereas the guys who are selling fruit locally are looking for year-round supply.”
For South African producers, the export market is also quite simply a very attractive one, but that does not mean the local market will not be a focus in future, he adds.
“It’s something that we’re working on to see how we can better meet local demand and able to store our fruit for longer so that we can give a more consistent supply for the local market.”
Ultimately, the kiwi industry is turning down a very prosperous path. Trusler says some of the farms are starting to get a really good production going, with good quality fruit and great feedback. On his farm, Blueberry Heights, they have experienced real triumph.
“We achieved 20 tonne production on our organic orchard last season and that was very exciting. It’s amazing to see and it’s very satisfying to go through all the challenges we’ve been through and then to have a good crop.”
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Born and bred in Cape Town, Nicole Ludolph is always telling a story. After a few years doing this and that, she decided that she might as well get paid for her stories. Nicole began her journalism career writing science articles for learner magazine Science Stars and interning at Getaway Magazine.
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