Pomegranates – a promising alternative crop

With the drop in prices of crops like wine and citrus, many farmers are looking to diversify. Fan Olivier of Porterville explains to Glenneis Erasmus why he turned to pomegranates

Issue Date: 11 May 2007

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With the drop in prices of crops like wine and citrus, many farmers are looking to diversify. Fan Olivier of Porterville explains to Glenneis Erasmus why he turned to pomegranates

Fan Olivier bought the farm Houdconstant, just outside Porterville in the Swartland, as a weekend and holiday retreat from hectic city life. In 2002 this network engineer decided to leave his job and farm full-time. He diversified from citrus as the ­primary generator of income to wine, grape and sheep production. Low prices for fruit and wine (especially in 2000 and 2001), with wine prices deteriorating even further after that, threatened farm sustainability. Fan had to either dismiss some employees – a short-term solution – or find alternative sources of income. Around 2001 he experimented with comfrey, cancer bush, spearmint and buchu.

However, he soon realised that his workers’ skills and the farm’s infrastructure were better suited to fruit production. After a meeting with nurseryman Keith Wilson from Riebeeck Wes, Fan decided to grow pomegranates. “Pomegranates appealed to me as the production styles seemed to be similar to those of citrus, which my workers and I were already familiar with,” Fan says.

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Health benefits
There is also a huge market demand for pomegranates for their health-promoting properties. Research shows that pomegranates contain more antioxidants – which help protect the body from infections and diseases – than red wine, berries or vegetables. One Israeli study found that a 250ml cup of pomegranate juice a day can reduce the thickness of cell membranes in the aorta by 30% and blood pressure by 21%. Pomegranates are also one of only six other plants that contain conjugated linoleic acid, one of the strongest naturally occurring anti-cancer agents. It not only guards against the development of cancer, but also prevents the disease from spreading. In addition, the fruit is rich in vitamins, iron, potassium and folic acid. One pomegranate supplies more than 40% of a person’s recommended daily vitamin C requirements. The excellent health benefits have resulted in pomegranates being proclaimed a “superfood” and this label in turn has spurred international demand for the fruit, according to Fan. Last year, a small 80g punnet of arils (the juicy red pulp containing the seeds) sold for R14,80 at a local store. Less than one pomegranate is needed to fill one punnet. Local producers are currently paid up to R70/kg for arils. In the US one pomegranate sells for around , while a bottle of 340ml pomegranate juice sells for just under . The American market has grown to such an extent that it is no longer able to supply European distributors. In Europe consumers are paying up to £1 for one pomegranate. The main market challenge is that some people have negative associations with the fruit. “People are past the stage where they will eat anything just because it is healthy. The local market for pomegranates never took off because of the taste and the large size of the pips in the arils,” Fan explains. Better cultivars are however now available and they have completely revolutionised the industry. They are not only physically appealing, but also have a sweet taste, small edible pips and fleshy arils.

Choice of cultivars
A huge variety of cultivars is available for production, and growers must choose the one most suitable for their circumstances. Fan uses the red cultivars Bagwa, Arakta and Ruby from India, as he believes they are more popular than yellow cultivars. Some South African producers grow yellow varieties, such as Mollar from Spain, and others use American cultivars like Wonderful. Many of the cultivars have more than one name – Bagwa, for example, is spelled in various ways and is also called Bagava and Kesar, while Arakta is also called Mirdula. This leaves the industry open to exploitation, as some role-players claim that one cultivar is superior to others; this cultivar will then be at a disadvantage in areas where it is known by another name. The naming problem also makes it difficult to create grower clubs for specific cultivars, as is done with Sharon persimmons or Pink Lady apples. The market industry is also extremely vulnerable to rogue traders. “Some producers plant old varieties or have old trees on their farms. They hear of the high prices obtained for pomegranates and try to take advantage of the situation by supplying the market with these inferior fruit. This causes huge damage to the industry,” Fan says.

Fan is the chairperson of Premier Pomegranate Producers (PPP). This group aims to 1: Arils of new cultivars are sweeter and fleshier than the old cultivars that used to be available in South Africa.
2: Fan has 8ha under ­pomegranate ­production and plans to plant an additional 4,5ha. 3: Fan produces red pomegranate ­cultivars from India as these are currently in huge demand in the EU and the US.
4: Pomegranate trees contain both male and female flowers, and can pollinate themselves.
5: Fan Olivier demonstrating how a ­pomegranate must be cut so as not to damage the arils.

Growing pomegranates
Pomegranates originated in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and India, and are widely produced today in Tunisia, Spain, Israel, ­Turkey and the US. The Russian researcher Dr Gregory Levine, working in Turkmenistan, made a great contribution by developing over 1 000 pomegranate cultivars. Sadly, much of his work was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union and many of the cultivars he developed were renamed to prevent the cultivars and ­research from being used by other countries.
Citrogold is currently investigating the climatic, soil and water requirements of ­different pomegranate cultivars so it can give producers guidelines for ­production under South African conditions. ­
Pomegranates are naturally heat-resistant, but even so perform best under irrigation. Fan uses a citrus fertigation programme, which he has adapted with the help of a fertigation company, to supply the pomegranate’s nutritional needs. The programme is adjusted according to the nutritional content of the soil (determined by yearly soil sampling) and the plant’s needs (determined through regular leaf sampling).

“Pomegranates are not magic plants – they need just as much and perhaps even more attention than some of our commercially produced deciduous or citrus trees,” Fan warns. Trees cost anything from R25 each. ­Pomegranates are traditionally produced in a multi-trunk system with trees spaced about 5m apart inside the rows and 3m between rows, or 6m inside the rows and 4m between rows. A few producers cultivate high-density plants. These mono-trunk shrubs need extra support and are planted at about 2m between trees inside rows and 4m between rows. Fan says more research is needed to identify the advantages and disadvantages of these plants compared with multi-trunk plants. Flowering usually occurs in waves ­during September. Fruit ripen 135 to 160 days after flowering and must be picked at three to four different periods because of uneven ­ripening. This greatly increases labour costs in ­comparison with other fruit that only has to be picked once. Fruit size varies from 225g to 650g, depending on the cultivar and ­production conditions.

Pomegranates are extremely susceptible to pests and diseases, from false coddling moth to thrips, plant lice, nematodes, fungi, root diseases, viruses and even sunburn. Because plant material has to be imported from other countries, there is a high fall-out percentage during the cultivation stage at the nursery.

Luckily Citrogold has undertaken to test plant material and guarantee its health status before it is sent to farms. This will help to ensure that farmers receive only healthy plants. Because the pomegranate industry in South Africa is so small, hardly any pesticides have been registered for use on these trees, and producers are forced to combat pests through biological means such as predatory insects. Biological control is not always as effective as pesticides; Fan suffered huge damage when biological control was inhibited by the high temperatures in the area last year. Fan hopes that universities will invest in more research into alternative fruit such as pomegranate, as the market for some of the larger-scale commodities such as wine and apples starts to decline.