Lemon with a twist

The Eureka Seedless lemon is a world first and a real coup for ARC scientists. Robyn Joubert talks to Peter Turner of Citrogold, the cultivar management company commercialising the Eureka Seedless.

Issue date: 08 February 2008

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The Eureka Seedless lemon is a world first and a real coup for ARC scientists. Robyn Joubert talks to Peter Turner of Citrogold, the cultivar management company commercialising the Eureka Seedless.

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South African citrus farmers are establishing commercial plantings of Eureka Seedless lemons, the first seedless lemon in the world. It was developed as part of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC’s) mutation breeding programme and is grown by citrus growers licensed by Citrogold, a cultivar management company that’s commercialising the cultivar on the ARC’s behalf.

“The semicommercial phase, where we determine whether the variety can be successfully farmed, has passed, ” says Citrogold director Peter Turner. “We’re now in the commercial phase, and the variety is being planted by farmers in areas where successful lemon production takes place.” The bright yellow lemon has eight to 10 segments and is quite elongated, making it highly sought after in the Far East. “The convenience of not having to dig lemon pips out of your food or gin and tonic is, from a catering point of view, a very useful trait,” says Peter. “The lemon contains no more or less juice than a standard Eureka but has a slightly higher oil content in the rind. does ripen earlier so we can have it on the market for a longer window period, from February through to August.”

The seedless lemon is being grown by citrus farmers, particularly those producing fresh lemons for export. “We have three categories of fresh lemon growers: farmers who produce for the premium export market; those who produce organically; and those supplying the local retail industry. We are committed to have 26% of all plantings as BEE. We’re continually on the lookout to include BEE projects in the grouping of commercial farmers.”

Establishing orchards

Citrogold is looking to establish 1 000ha of the seedless lemon in SA. At this stage 640ha have been planted. first orchards were planted in 2001 and yields will increase every year until the trees reach full-bearing capacity. “On a lemon orchard producing for export, we try to reach 60t/ha of fruit, which is as much as with normal lemon trees,” explains Peter. “We have Eureka orchards that achieve 100t/ha but if we achieve a ballpark yield of 50t/ha to 60t/ha, we consider it commercially viable.”

The seedless variety is better suited to cooler production areas in the Eastern and Western Cape. Prime areas for fresh lemons are in the Eastern Cape around Addo, Kirkwood and Sunday’s River Valley where an increasing number of new plantings are taking place. “We’ve experienced a problem with the variety’s performance in hot areas in the north, which aren’t really suitable for lemon production,” says Peter. “Growers who planted there hastily haven’t seen a good performance. In cooler areas, growers got good flower sets and are very excited.”

While Citrogold wants SA farmers to benefit from the lemon and be the first to put it on the market, the company is in the process of getting it produced in the US and Spain. It will also be produced in Australia, Chile and Argentina. “Retailers like to have the product on the shelf and have it from both the northern and southern hemisphere,” says Peter. “From a disease point of view, citrus has phytosanitary barriers from one country to another. It takes a long time to introduce a foreign variety to another country.”The premium on the price of the seedless lemon, compared to the standard lemon, varies from as much as 50% down to about 15% in specific market segment. “However, when we are in the stage of commercialising a product, we don’t like to raise the grower’s expectations of the premium he may earn, as the grower only remembers the high end,” says Peter.

The target markets for the seedless lemon are the export markets that pay a premium. Sainsbury’s in the UK was the recipient of the first export crop in 2005. “UK supermarkets and Japan pay the highest premiums,” says Peter. “We are also selling in SA to Woolworths, which is promoting the lemon on their website. There are one or two markets which at present don’t perceive any real value to the seedless lemon and it has not found great demand in the Middle East.”

Avoid too much, too soon

Peter says one of the dangers of commercializing a new product is to create hype about it and then not be able to keep continuity on the shelves. “We are testing consignments to Japan and are gearing up for a bigger drive into the market once we have sufficient volumes to supply all our markets. We are no where near that yet but yields are increasing every year.”

Even when production is in full swing, the seedless lemon is not expected to take the market by storm. While there have been reports that the seedless lemon could rock Cypriot lemon and citrus exports to the UK, worth an estimated ₤50 million a year, Peter does not consider this market to be under any immediate danger. “Right now, the seedless lemon is not seen as a major issue for seeded growers. If you look at seedless grapes, it has taken many years for them to be completely embraced by supermarkets. The seedless lemon is a nice product for specialist lemon growers and offers a premium on returns. Over a period of time, between 20 or 30 years, when supermarkets see there is more continuous supply and demand, they will convert completely to seedless.”

Eureka Seedless Lemon are produced.clonally All the citrus material is tested and declared clean, evaluated annually and released from the Citrus Foundation Block in Uitenhage to authorized nurseries, who in turn prepare the material for licensed farmers. “We are a world leader with the system we have and are keeping the industry disease free,” says Peter.