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Nico Verhoef – Witzenberg Properties

South African pears are having a moment

The market can expect excellent quality apples and pears and in fact, recent cooler temperatures accompanying the gale force winds of three weeks ago helped the late cultivars, the Rosy Glows and the Pink Ladys, to deepen their colour on the farms making up Witzenberg Properties. The company is celebrating its seventieth year since the Graaff family started growing apples at Die Eike in the Witzenberg Valley, high above Ceres.

"For the market that's positive news. The difference it made in our orchards will have a bigger impact than the couple of apples that blew off," explains Nico Verhoef, financial director at Witzenberg Properties. Last year, they lost almost their entire apple crop from their Witzenberg Valley farms to hail. The Rosy Glow harvest is in full swing, with Sundowners last in line.

"Initially the season was a bit earlier than the previous two seasons, but on the late cultivars, the Pink Lady and the Sundowner, we're seeing them closer to the usual schedule again."

Since the founding of the farming enterprise production risk has been significantly addressed through the addition of farms tucked into various corners of the intricate folds and microclimates of the Boland: Esperanto in the Koue Bokkeveld, Leewenfontein in the Warm Bokkeveld (where pears and nectarines excel), more pomefruit and cherries in Bo-Swaarmoed. The latest addition to Witzenberg Properties are farms in Vyeboom, close to Villiersdorp.

Pears are shining in China
Pears are now following apples in a big move eastwards, and having a great run in China at the moment where, he notes, South African pears are doing exceedingly well since being allowed market access in 2022. "China is taking a large part of our pear offering, strong volumes of predominantly Forelle pears, and this is having a lifting effect on the entire pear market worldwide. Four years ago, during Covid, pears also had an exceptional price year and it looks like it could be almost the same again this year, although we don't expect the crazy prices we saw during Covid."

Pear supplies aren't endless, though, because volumes reflect the frost damage done to blossoms.

Verhoef describes Witzenberg Properties as a loyal Tru-Cape supplier, 100% behind the marketer which has been doing sterling work in opening up new markets, particularly in the East. Tru-Cape also markets most of their cherries, doing excellent work with it, he remarks.

Nothing compares to cherries
"We pack all of our cherry crop ourselves at our world class packing facilities. Over the past three seasons we've steadily increased the portion of the crop, packed for export. We are a niche packing operation, being agile to pack to the customers' needs, with packaging types including: punnets of all sizes, ziplock bags, tubs, or loose in bulk cartons. Whatever clients require, while our volumes are manageable, we can do."

South Africa is the only origin of cherries for some weeks during the Northern autumn and some 70ha of new-generation cherries have been established over recent years by Witzenberg Properties. By adding cherries grown by other producers in the Tru-Cape stable, cherry availability spans from early November through to the end of December.

At their cherry packhouse on Esperanto Farm they packed 400 tonnes of cherries during the last season of which 75% were sold domestically. "We sell directly from the packhouse as well and we simply can't keep up with demand," he says.

Approximately 100 tonnes of cherries were exported during the season, to markets including the United Kingdom, Middle East and the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Seychelles.

The cherries are grown on high-altitude farms but average cold during winter is worrying them. Growing cherries is not for the faint-hearted: "With cherries every day between flowering and maturity is critical, everything has to go according to plan. Incidentally, cherries have among the shortest periods between flowering and maturity of all stonefruit or pomefruit."

But, he adds, the experience of biting into a cherry is a unique sensation to which no other fruit compares.

Nectarines are grown in the Warm Bokkeveld, Witzenberg Valley and Koue Bokkeveld and its main markets remain the United Kingdom and Europe.

"We're proud of our nectarine production which we've been expanding constantly over the past seven years and it is performing exceptionally well. One does worry whether the industry has not planted too many nectarine hectares recently but in Ceres our altitude and the cold units accumulating during winter mean nectarines fare better than in other areas in terms of yield per hectare and fruit sizing."

Koue Bokkeveld is ground zero for onions
Southern African onion buyers know that the Koue Bokkeveld is synonymous with premium longday brown onions and even economic ups and downs don't dampen the consistent demand for onions from Angola, taken up by truck. Buyers from Mozambique and other Southern African countries buy onions from the fresh produce market in Johannesburg.

"Even in tough times onions are the one ingredient that cannot be substituted. Onions are complementary to our enterprise. They are drawn and cut just ahead of the Gala harvest and sold in our brand which always earns us a premium. Onions have been excelling over the past two years – especially last year with exceptional prices."

He observes that their industry is always renewing itself. "Just when you think you're stuck in a dead end, new cultivation techniques come along and point you in a whole new direction. It's exciting, actually."

Turning a challenge into an opportunity: solar panels for irrigation

For more information:
Nico Verhoef
Witzenberg Properties
Tel: +27 23 316 1915