Not all of South Africa is in a drought – in the Natal Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal there are farmers who say they’re having a fantastic rainy season, even if this January has been a bit on the dry side. One such farmer is Peter Nicholson, who is on the cusp of his first commercial volumes of the golden Skelton and Soreli kiwis. “All the rain has been really good for our kiwis. Over the past two years I’ve barely had to irrigate.”
“It’s been a steep learning curve and we’ve paid some school fees along the way but we’re nearly there,” he says of the decision of a handful of farmers around South Africa to invest in the lesser-known Skelton variety in 2013, on the basis of the favourable export window of four to eight weeks open to South Africa before New Zealand product is ready. It’s been a bumpy road, with letdowns and disappointments and a lot of self-reliance to get the hang of a New Zealand-bred cultivar whose chilling suitability to South Africa was not certain at all.
It’s a gamble that appears to have paid off. “We’ll start harvesting in about two weeks’ time and it’s looking very, very promising. The vines are still young but we’re hoping for a quadrupling of volumes from the Richmond area this year,” he says. Last year initial small volumes were sent to test the waters in Singapore and met with a response that shows great potential for the South African fruit. This year they’re expecting roughly 100 tonnes from this small area – one ha of kiwi can yield 30 or 40 tonnes.
Peter has planted 10ha of golden kiwi varieties, of which, for the moment, five hectares is Skelton and five hectares the Italian Soreli variety. He plans to enlarge his acreage under golden kiwis to about 25ha, while his forty year-old seven hectares of the traditional green Hayward will eventually be replaced with any number of commercial or promising new generation golden kiwis he has under trial.
Golden kiwis are somewhat more labour-intensive than green ones, because the plants are so vigorous, requiring 1.5 labour unit per hectare per year instead of just one worker per hectare. Some of his fruit have weighed as much as 120g although he says he’s aiming at the sweet spot of 100g. Export kiwis’ weight starts at 80g.
Kiwi packing is taken care of by the province’s thriving avocado industry. “Any avocado packhouse can do kiwis and the nice thing is that we harvest our fruit in February and March when there aren’t any avocados yet.”
Peter Nicholson runs a holistic farming business with cattle, timber and vegetables on Roselands Farm. “Kiwifruit is probably one of the easiest fruit with which to go organic. They’re incredibly resistant to most things. The only thing that attacks them around here is the Natal fruit fly,” he says. Interestingly, he sends his soil samples not to a South African laboratory but to the famous Brookside Laboratory in Ohio, whence he gets results back in less than a week. “For four years in a row they’ve been 100% accurate with their recommendations.”
Kiwifruit is in the quite unusual position in that it achieves export parity. For large periods of the year South Africans eat imported kiwis and locally it is always an expensive fruit.
“It’s early days, the volumes are still small,” says an industry insider. “The next two to three seasons will show where the price point is for golden kiwis. Local retailers are interested, importers as well. The key thing is that the South African kiwi industry is an emerging industry finding its feet.”