Growing papayas: Easy to produce, tricky to market

Papaya production poses few challenges, says Mpumalanga-based papaya producer Giovanna Secco. But with high volumes and unstable demand, farming the fruit requires careful management to ensure that the crop remains profitable.

Growing papayas: Easy to produce, tricky to market
Papayas are intercropped with macadamia nuts and removed when the macadamia trees are four years old. Photo: Lindi Botha
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Born in Australia of Italian descent, Giovanna Secco settled in Low’s Creek in Mpumalanga with her family in the 1970s, joining a number of Italian families in the area. When the Seccos arrived on the farm, papayas were already in production, although they were known as pawpaws at that time.

“Interestingly enough, pawpaws are actually a completely different fruit. What we know as a pawpaw is actually a papaya, although somehow the pawpaw name stuck,” says Secco.

Today, Secco is one of the last of the original Italian immigrants, and their operation has grown considerably. She and her family procured farms as they came up for sale, and not only expanded papaya production, but pioneered the macadamia nut industry in the Low’s Creek area as well.

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Different varieties and sizes
The first varieties planted on Kudu Farms were of the Hortus Gold variety, which had male and female plants that needed to be planted together for cross-pollination.

As the farm has modernised, so too have the varieties that have been planted, and these are self-pollinating. Today, the farm produces red-fleshed papayas stemming from the Tainung and Sun Rise Solo varieties, with fruit ranging in size from 400g to about 1kg.

Giovanna Secco has been farming papayas since 1970. Seeds are given to a nursery to germinate and Secco and her team then plant the seedlings.

When the Seccos started farming, they planted papayas in orchards on their own. Later, when they established their first macadamias, they implemented intercropping. The papayas are removed when the macadamias are approximately four years old, so soil preparation adheres to the requirements of the macadamias. Both crops, nonetheless, benefit from this preparation.

Prior to establishing the orchard, the soil is ripped and ridged; the macadamias are then planted down the middle of the ridge and the papaya seedlings are planted on both sides, forming a double row. Kudu Farms has approximately 200ha of producing papayas planted at a density of about 1 600 trees/ha.

From the time the papaya seedlings are planted, there is a 12-month wait for the first crop. Thereafter, the trees keep producing throughout the year, with only a slight dip in yield from January to March due to the lower temperatures in the previous six months.

“The cold weather stunts growth and they don’t develop at the speed they would in summer, which means there are fewer flowers and less fruit. Over a year we harvest between 70t/ha to 100t/ha,” says Secco.

Low’s Creek has an ideal climate for growing papayas, with temperatures ranging from an average minimum of 10°C in winter to a maximum of 35°C to 38°C in summer. Secco says that rainfall is important in the hot months and the area receives between 550mm and 800mm per annum.

“Papayas need a subtropical or tropical climate and cannot withstand frost. If the temperature dips below 4°C, the skin of the fruit develops burn marks.

“The water requirement is quite high. We irrigate five hours per week with a 40ℓ/ hour micro-irrigation system. I prefer micro-irrigation due to our water quality. The fine mist created by micro-irrigation also provides a favourable microclimate within the orchards,” she says.

The farm’s soils range from rocky to red loam, with some sandy soils. Secco says that papayas prefer well-drained soils and do not tolerate water-saturated fields as they are prone to suffer from Phytophthora and Pythium. Crops should therefore ideally be rotated to prevent pathogen build-up in the soil. Good soil preparation and quality seedlings are crucial to producing a good crop.

“We apply a granular fertiliser, containing a mix of nitrogen, potassium phosphates and micronutrients, every second month. The papaya has a large cavity containing a lot of seed, so the potassium is needed to firm the fruit and give it a longer shelf life. The soil has a high level of phosphates, which is detrimental to macadamias but necessary for the papayas, so we try to balance this.

“We also apply compost made on the farm using papaya fruit waste, wood chips and gypsum at a rate of between 3t/ha and 4t/ha.”

Packing quality
There are no major pest threats to papayas in this region and Secco can therefore produce a crop without using insecticide. However, fruit fly-baiting pheromone containers are placed on the perimeter of the orchards to reduce the numbers of active fruit flies.

Fungi, however, are a challenge, with black spot and powdery mildew requiring monitoring.

“We have to apply fungicides for these,” says Secco. “We are GlobalGAP-certified, so we diligently follow the withdrawal periods and application rates. Not many chemicals are registered for use against diseases in papaya, so controlling disease can be a challenge. Black spot is a serious problem; once you see it, it’s too late, which means prevention is the only option.”

As the trees produce fruit throughout the year, labour is needed on an ongoing basis to pick mature fruit in the orchards. By the time the trees reach 18 months of age, the workers need ladders to harvest the fruit.

A picker climbs the ladder and passes the fruit down to the catcher below, who places it in crates. Another team removes the crates using a tractor that is driven between the rows.

According to Secco, they require seven pickers and seven catchers in the orchards out of season, and twice that number in peak season. Harvesting is time-consuming; the fruit is fragile and sensitive to bruising, and ongoing discipline is needed to ensure that it’s handled correctly to reduce blemishes.

Once harvested, the fruit is sent to the on-farm packhouse, where it is sorted and placed in a 50°C water bath.

“If there are any scratches or small lesions on the fruit, the hot water treatment seals them and prevents the fruit from perishing. Because the fruit’s natural wax is removed by the hot water, we have to spray it with a natural wax,” says Secco.

The fruit is then placed in ripening rooms at a temperature of 32°C. This would normally result in a large electricity bill, but Kudu Farms burns macadamia shells from its nut-cracking facility to heat up boilers, which then provide heat for the ripening rooms and hot water baths.

Once ripe, the fruit is packed and sent to market daily in the farm’s fleet of refrigerated trucks.

“Packaging and transport relative to the value of the crop is expensive,” says Secco.

Tricky market
While papaya production is not overly difficult, the challenge lies in balancing often low prices with the constant cost of production. Kudu Farms supplies supermarkets and municipal markets and also sells directly to individual fruit shops. Over-ripe or second-grade fruit is sent to juicing factories or sold to the local hawker market.

Hannes Taute, the papaya production manager at Kudu Farms, says papayas compete with nearly all other fruit on the market.

“If there’s a lot of fruit on the market, both in the case of papayas and other fruit, we really struggle with low prices. At the end of August to mid-September, we have a small gap where the prices are high because the citrus season is finished and the stone fruit and grapes haven’t yet started. Prices are also a bit higher from January to March, when the papaya supply is lower.

“To survive, we have to keep vigilant to get a good-quality product, making sure we cover our costs during the low-price periods, and make up during the other months.”

According to Secco, papayas do well when the economy does well.

“It’s not a necessity; it’s a health choice,” she explains. “Those who know and value papaya’s health properties are prepared to spend money on the fruit. It is excellent for the digestive system and high in vitamin C.”

She notes that presentation is important on the market, and having blemish-free fruit is ideal, but not always possible.

“We’ve built up a good name with our buyers and this helps, because they know they can trust the quality they receive. We’ve had very good feedback from consumers about our papayas, so there’s value in branding fruit.”

Email Kudu Farms at [email protected].

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