Deciduous fruit refer to the fruit of trees, shrubs and vines that lose their leaves during winter. The deciduous fruit industry includes apples, pears, nectarines, plums, peaches, apricots and cherries. These are further subdivided into two main types, namely pome fruit (apples and pears) and stone fruit (nectarines, plums, apricots, peaches and cherries). Grapes are also classified as a deciduous fruit, but will not be included in this discussion since it is a specialised industry in its own right.

An integral part of the agri landscape

According to Hortgro, the industry consists of 2 231 producers, utilising 79 912ha to produce fruit. Approximately 1,34 permanent jobs are created per hectare. The deciduous fruit industry is a major contributor to annual GDP in South Africa due to its high export volumes, and has an annual turnover of R12,35 billion.

Chile and South Africa are the main southern hemisphere exporters, collectively exporting 71% of deciduous fruit. Approximately 44% of total South African production is exported to the United Kingdom, continental Europe, Russia, the Far East and Asia, Africa and the Middle East, among others. Fresh fruit is especially popular in Europe because it matures during the northern hemisphere’s winter.

The industry clearly forms an integral part of the agricultural industry and the country’s economy, but which factors contribute to its fruitfulness? And in which areas of South Africa do these crops grow and why? Another important question to consider is how climate change is affecting these production areas.

Fruit production areas

The majority of deciduous fruit is produced in the Western and Eastern Cape and the Free State, but also to a lesser extent in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. The climatic conditions of these provinces are ideal for the various deciduous fruit trees. Nina Goosen of Hortgro explains why:

“Most deciduous fruit trees require a certain amount of winter chill to break dormancy in spring and begin growth, flowering and, most importantly, fruit set. In general, pome and stone fruit prefer a Mediterranean climate – cold, wet winters and warm, hot summers. This being said, stone fruit and lower chill apples are also produced in the Limpopo province with great success.

“Pome fruit in general has a higher winter chilling requirement than most stone fruit varieties and therefore microclimate plays a very important role.

The major production areas have been affected by the drought (specifically the Western and Eastern Cape). Production has thus been notably lower compared to previous years, with colder spring conditions with less winter chill in critical periods coupled with dry, hot and windy summers.”

Deciduous fruit seasons

Deciduous fruit mostly start blooming in September, except for apricots and nectarines, which start in August. These varieties are consequently also harvested earlier (from October). The end of the season, however, also differs. Each deciduous fruit type has its own unique cycle, depending on the production region, summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Production periods for major deciduous fruit types in South Africa.
Fruit Bloom Harvest
Apples September/October January/February – May
Pears September January – March
Apricots August October – January
Nectarines August October – March
Peaches September October – March
Plums September November – April
Cherries September October – December

During the harvest season, fruit are handled quickly to ensure a fresh and mature product reaches local and international consumers. For pome fruit 91% of the annual income is generated by fresh sales. A large percentage is also destined to be processed into juice or canned fruit, while a smaller portion is dedicated to dried products, with more pears being dried than apples.

In the stone fruit industry 76% is generated by fresh sales, with a larger percentage allocated to processed and dried goods than pome fruit. This excludes plums, of which the majority is destined for the fresh export market – only 3% of the total tonnage is processed.

Fruit production areas

Deciduous fruit is mostly produced in the Western and Eastern Cape in very specific regions. Each region has its own unique climate that can differ vastly from a neighbouring region. Mountain ranges and valleys contribute to this drastic difference between regions. Ceres, for example, has a climate that supports almost all deciduous fruit, with only plums not dominating the landscape.

Apples and pears thrive equally well in Groenland and Villiersdorp/Vyeboom, with more apples growing (in terms of percentage) here than in Ceres. Groenland and Villiersdorp/Vyeboom are also known as the Elgin Grabouw Vyeboom and Villiersdorp (EGVV) district.

Apricots predominantly grow in the Klein Karoo region, specifically in Montagu, Robertson and Ladismith. Table 2 contains a comprehensive summary of the various fruit types and the areas they are produced in. Details on the volume of each fruit produced in the specific region is also given as a percentage.

Table 2: Areas of production and volumes produced for major fruit types.
Fruit Regions Distribution
Apples Ceres 30%
  Groenland, Villiersdorp/Vyeboom 43%
  Langkloof 20%
Pears Ceres 37%
  Langkloof 16%
  Wolseley/Tulbagh 12%
  Groenland, Villiersdorp/Vyeboom 21%
Apricots Klein Karoo 90%
  Piketberg 4%
  Ceres 3,6%
Dessert peaches Ceres 18%
  Klein Karoo 16%
  Northern Province 16%
Cling peaches Klein Karoo 53%
  Ceres 16%
  Worcester 8%
Nectarines Ceres 41%
  Wolseley/Tulbagh 12%
  Paarl 10%
Plums Klein Karoo 32%
  Paarl 19%
  Wolseley/Tulbagh 12%
Cherries Ceres 46%
  Free State 28%
  Worcester 13%

New trends in fruit production

The agricultural industry, and especially the deciduous fruit industry, is continuously changing and evolving to adapt to industry and climate demands. According to Goosen, there are some noticeable trends that are changing the landscape of the industry. These trends have an influence on cultivar and storage development, production methods, as well as climatic conditions.

“The most prominent trends are new developments in cultivars being established. Availability of water is also a critical and determining factor on where fruit can be produced,” says Goosen.

“Climate has a direct impact on production and pack-out quality, which will force producers to adapt and be more creative in the way they go about producing fruit. They must therefore adapt to the current situation, which includes irrigation restrictions, thus learning how to use water more efficiently while still being able to remain profitable. By using more innovative technology, producers can stay competitive as well as sustainable.

“As far as trends in production methods are concerned, planting densities have increased, the use of netting is occurring more frequently, fruit type choices have increased, producers are adapting to site specific varieties, irrigation techniques have improved with the use of satellites, and irrigation system designs and storage of fruit have advanced. Mechanisation has also increased, while productivity has been enhanced through the automation of certain activities.” – Ursula Human, FarmBiz

For enquiries, contact Nina Goosen, agricultural economist at Hortgro, on 021 870 2938 or send an email to nina@hortgro.co.za.