HEALTHY HAUL: Workers sort avocados at a farm factory in Nelspruit. Picture: REUTERS
HEALTHY HAUL: Workers sort avocados at a farm factory in Nelspruit. Picture: REUTERS

Whether you like to squash it onto your toast in the morning; eat it to cut your cholesterol with its healthy oil; or moisturise your face with it — if you live in the West, you’re probably rarely far from an avocado.

And that is very good news for SA’s farmers, struggling with drought, who are switching to a crop whose farm-gate price has risen 130% since 2008.

Already, SA generates about R1.85bn a year from avocados, producing about 125,000 tonnes and exporting more than half to Europe. In 2008, avos fetched an average R9.64 per kg; in 2017, it was R22.10.

It takes six years to get an avocado plantation into production, but that is not putting farmers off.

"Forestry plantations are being felled and cleared and avocados planted," said Derek Donkin, CEO of the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association. "There are also areas that were either bush or some grazing that’s been planted to avocados."

There are currently about 16,500ha of avocado plantations, and that area is growing by about 1,000ha a year.

Traditionally, avocados were grown in humid, sub-tropical climates in the Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, but now they are being planted in the drier Eastern and Western Cape. Techniques, such as drip irrigation, which drips water slowly onto the soil, and planting orchids on ridges to reduce surface run-off, help make the most of the water available.

"Traditionally, no one would ever dream about planting down there, but you need to be a pioneer — much like this farm was pioneered more than 100 years ago," said Craig Lewis, an executive at the producer HL Hall and Sons on a farm near Nelspruit.

The firm hopes its trial plantation in the Western Cape — hit hard by drought this year — might allow it to extend what is now a six-month season to 10 months, to supply a global, year-round demand. "Although SA is planting 1,000ha a year, we would like to plant a lot more," Lewis said. Donkin said the rate could hit as much as 2,000ha a year within the next few years.

On a smaller scale, Tom Mdluli manages 188 employees on a 6,000ha community farm in Mpumalanga, owned by a trust. It exports about 80% of its 260ha worth of avocados — and is planning to expand by another 120ha.

Even the wines famously produced in the Cape may, one, day have to move aside for the avocado. Said Wessel Lemmer, senior agricultural economist at Absa Bank, "They swap the annual crops, such as maize, cotton and alfalfa, for more permanent crops. They even take out vines."