Huge blow as mysterious outbreak cuts output by nearly half
The citrus industry is in the midst of a disaster, with up to 40% of oranges dropping off trees at farms in the Sundays River Valley due to an unknown phenomenon.
Besides the huge financial implications for the industry, it is also a massive blow for those who rely on seasonal jobs, with the number of jobs down by about a third.
A team from Citrus Research International (CRI) in Nelspruit is expected to arrive in Port Elizabeth soon to investigate the unknown phenomenon, which threatens to halve this year’s harvest.
The skin of affected oranges splits and the fruit drops off the trees – and early indications point to the drought as a leading cause, according to farmers in the Sundays River Valley.
Sundays River Citrus Company (SRCC) managing director Hannes de Waal said farmers could lose up to 40% of their yield for the year, slashing the industry’s annual gross domestic product contribution of R1.5-billion by the same percentage.
“This is a disaster to say the least,” De Waal said.
“In my 21 years in this industry, I have never seen anything like this.
“There are a number of theories linked to this baffling phenomenon. “One is the drought we are currently in. “In October and November, when the citrus blossoms just start to develop, we received exactly half of the usual rainfall.
“Another possible factor is the amount of salt in the water we use for irrigation.
“The water is taken from the ground and is very mineral-rich, including these salts.
“We can’t over-irrigate because there needs to be a certain salt ratio in the fruit.
“Usually, we rely on the rain to wash away the salt on and in the trees, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
The Sundays River Valley region is the worst affected, followed by Patensie and Citrusdal in the Western Cape.
De Waal said while 100 farms of the about 150 in the Sundays River Valley – which make up the SRCC – were still expected to export to all their usual trading partners, including the US, the Middle East and Asia, it would be in much lower volumes.
The predicted export figure for the year of 26.3 million 15kg cartons, would drop by between 30% and 40%.
Consequently, the prices of citrus could increase marginally
De Waal said researchers would conduct a thorough investigation into the cause, which was unclear at the moment.
“We fear this could occur again in the future,” he said.
“It is a major concern, considering citrus is the second-biggest industry in the province behind the motor industry.”
Patensie Citrus chief executive Fredri Kok said about 30% of their naval production had been affected.
“We got a researcher in to evaluate the problem and he believes the unseasonably high temperatures in late August and September affected cell division in the navels, resulting in them over-ripping and falling,” Kok said.
“This has a negative effect on the industry, which produces less of a yield and, in turn, on the picking and packing season of navels, which starts in May and is shortened from 10 to seven weeks, affecting employment in the region.”
Kirkwood farmer Japhta April said he had first noticed the dropping fruit in November.
However, the evidence of it splitting only appeared in February, when the Valencia citrus began to ripen.
April attributed the mysterious phenomenon to the drought, saying he feared entering the orchards and “seeing my money lying on the floor”.
“It is normal for the fruit to fall off the tree, but definitely not at this rate,” he said.
“We will only be able to harvest about 60% of this year’s crop.
“Once a piece of citrus hits the ground, it can’t be sold – not even on the domestic market. The fruit tastes the same and is still orange, but we can’t sell it so it goes into a machine which grinds it.
“We throw this rotten fruit around the orchard to lure insects to feed on it instead of the trees.
“We also had to flatten about 11 orchards this year because they simply weren’t producing fruit as the temperatures were just too hot.
“From our four farms, we usually produce about 400 000 cartons of citrus, but this year, because of this infection, we expect half that yield.” Gamtoos Valley farmer Nicholas Dippenaar said: “It is a very scary situation because there is nothing we can do about it – we can’t fight nature.”
CRI national extension manager Hannes Bester told TimesLIVE he believed the drought was to blame.
“For a while now, nature hasn’t been playing along,” he said.
“Over the past 18 months, we have had exactly half our usual rainfall.”
Bester said packhouses had reduced productivity to inspect fruit more closely‚ as any split in the rind made an orange ineligible for export.
“The critical aspects – like the drenching and waxing of the fruit – will have to be meticulously executed‚” he said
Economist Mike Schussler said the decreased produce would have an effect on related industries.
“It is obviously not at all good for the citrus industry,” he said.
“But one forgets that while the automotive industry is the biggest [in the Eastern Cape], agriculture in the province probably creates more employment. “And employment in rural areas is most affected. “Also, this will affect investor confidence in the province and affect related industries such as transport, farming materials and so on, which will have less of a demand as a result.”
The predicted losses come less than two months after the provincial government illustrated its confidence in the industry with the announcement of R500-million for the upgrade of the R335 linking Addo and Motherwell.
Roads and Public Works MEC Thandiswa Marawu said her department would set aside R200-million for special maintenance of the R342 from Addo to Paterson, and R300-million for the upgrade of the R336 between Kirkwood and Addo.