Fresh produce: A complex business

The latest South African Table Grape Industry (SATI) crop estimate makes for interesting reading, and reminds me once again of just how complex the fresh produce business can be.

SATI’s third crop estimate for the 2015/2016 season gives updated figures for four of the five main production regions (Orange River, Olifants River, Berg River and Hex Valley). In each case, the figure is lower than the previous estimate. The numbers highlight the impact of the weather and other factors on production.

Warm, dry conditions during the growing season have resulted in smaller berry sizes in the regions. In the Olifants River, the added challenge of water restrictions further constrained berry sizes and bunch weights.
Smaller berries mean lighter bunches, which mean lower income.

Up and down
The current estimate for total production has been adjusted to 56,8 million 4,5kg-cartons. The first estimate, in October 2015, was for about 63,2 million cartons. Turning to season-for-season figures, we find that 2014/2015 produced 59,4 million cartons (due in large part to additional plantings), while 2013/2014 gave us 50,6 million cartons.

So we’re looking at a yo-yo pattern; about 7% down on 2014/2015, but up on the season before that. On the brighter side, the current season’s dry weather conditions in all the regions translates into excellent quality with good harvesting and packing conditions. Hot, dry summers contribute to good fruit development.

Elsewhere in South Africa, we’ve seen fruit farms hammered by hail and vegetable farmers struggling with severe water restrictions. Prices on the markets have reacted accordingly and the experts tell us that consumers can expect high food prices.

By contrast, the supply of grapes to the markets is not severely limited, quality is good and prices reflect this. They are high, but not excessive.

Looking to the future
As I’ve said on many occasions, there is never a dull moment in the fresh produce business. On the one hand, we have the devastation of drought, high heat and hail. On the other hand, certain crops are flourishing. One feels for those farmers who have had to suffer crop losses, and can only hope that the vagaries of nature will favour them next season.