Voelvlei Dam in the Western Cape. Picture: ASHRAF HENDRICKS, GROUNDUP
Voelvlei Dam in the Western Cape. Picture: ASHRAF HENDRICKS, GROUNDUP

Drought and the predicted long-term drier trend in the Western Cape could have a serious effect on the growing of deciduous fruit crops, says deciduous fruit industry body Hortgro.

The Western Cape’s drought threatens to decimate the province’s once thriving agricultural sector. Concerns have been raised that it will lead to fruit shortages and a sharp increase in prices.

"The drought will definitely have an impact on deciduous fruit, but it’s early to assess the seriousness of the impact in terms of crops … the trees are just beginning to blossom at this stage," said Hugh Campbell, Hortgro’s general manager.

Growers were doing all they could to save the crops, including irrigation and prioritising the orchards, Campbell said.

"We are forever hopeful that there will be rain falling … if we get small batches, that prolongs the joy."

In June, Hortgro said the drought had slashed apple and pear exports 9% and 6%.

Prof Wiehann Steyn, Hortgro’s crop production manager, said recently that drought would have a knock-on effect.

"Because deciduous fruit trees are perennial crops, severe drought stress does not only affect the season during which it occurs, but will have a knock-on effect in subsequent seasons," Steyn said.

"Considering that the annual production cost of a full-bearing apple orchard runs close to R150,000 per hectare, growers may incur considerable debts in a severe drought year with diminished means to recuperate these debts in future seasons."

Since deciduous fruit trees only attained full production five to six years after planting, it took a long time to fully replace lost orchards, while reduced growth of young orchards could have a significant effect on profitability, considering that establishment costs could exceed R350,000 per hectare, Steyn said.

Smaller commercial growers and new entrants to deciduous fruit farming were even more exposed to the negative effects of severe water limitations, he said.

Marinus van der Merwe, a fruit farmer from Vygeboom, said that, given climate realities, water storage capacity in the Western Cape had to be increased drastically to ensure that producers had security for at least two years during future dry spells.

Decreased winter rainfall was predicted for the Western Cape and this could have a drastic effect on horticultural farming in the Western Cape, said Van der Merwe.

"We need additional water storage capacity for at least two years. This is key to the survival of irrigation farming in the Western Cape.

"We also need a shared vision, true leadership and aligned priorities. This will be of great importance to keep our rural economies alive," he said.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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