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Free State Apples 101

Although Hein Punt was born in and did cut his teeth on apples in the Western Cape, he is today well-rooted in the Eastern Free State at Maluti Fruit near Bethlehem. He talked to Gerrit Rautenbach about the differences and diversities between the apple districts.

“I always say that if you’re intelligent, you go to university, but if you’re clever, you go to Maties (Stellenbosch University),” Hein begins our chat with a smile.  “I studied horticulture and (Oom) Koos Lötter  told me his prof … Reynecke I think it was, went on a road trip in the 1930s to the Free State coming across apple trees already then.”

However, most of those early apples didn’t cut it commercially because of hail. The hail is still a risk, but these days, the farmers have nets although input cost of around R200 000 per hectare makes apple farming an expensive option.

Yet, in the early 1990s, Kobus van der Merwe of Drakensberg-Koöperasie convinced a handful of Eastern Free State farmers to invest in apple production. With arable land and water readily available they did, and although the Free State still today only produces 2% of the country’s apples (in comparison to the Langkloof’s 20%), this is a success story.

What is the biggest advantage the Free State has over the bigger, more traditional apple areas? Timing.

Due to climatic differences, the Free State has the advantage of delivering early on traditional varietal apples in the market  ̶  between two and three weeks before the Western Cape. “It’s warmer from September to December in the Free State than the Western Cape and due to this strategic and competitive advantage, a lot of effort went into varietal development since the early ’90s.  Newer varieties such as Big Bucks will assist in maintaining the early season gap,” Hein adds.

Producing apples in an area with summer rains is different from producing in the Cape’s winter rain. It’s challenging to produce and harvest in summer Free State storms. “This year specifically, we had a lot of rain in January, up to 400 mm, resulting in low calcium levels, causing bitter pit,” he explains. “Still, the warmer weather ensures our apples are ready when the local markets are low on fresh apples. Then we supply.”

Apart from adapting to summer rains and hail (which is a universal problem, actually), the Free State has to cope with serious frost exposure when the fruits have already formed. To help manage this, there are alarms in the orchards warning growers when the frost comes. That’s when the farmers switch on their irrigation to protect the apples. Water covers the flowers and fruit and literally forms an ice cocoon, protecting the apples, almost like a diver’s wetsuit protecting the diver from hypothermia.

Although coming from a low base, a year-on-year growth of 10% is observed for apple production in the Eastern Free State. There is a lot of land, a lot of water, and albeit short, a history of viable production. Meaning that, where farms used to pack and manage their own produce, the volumes are increasing, stretching capacity and management skills. A lot of farmers opt for specialist packhouses and facilities. Like Maluti Fruit, packing for 11 producers at present.

Hawkers Packing (2)2
Hawkers packing fruit for the local market.

Another uniqueness of the Free State apple industry is the importance of hawkers. Apples not making the top grade in the Western Cape end up being used for juice or cider which is a big business and ensuring minimum wastage. Even for a big packhouse in Free State terms like Maluti Fruit, it is not financially viable to erect a juice plant, but those apples are pretty good still, creating a hawkers’ paradise. In fact, apart from just selling their own surplus apples, Maluti Fruit is also “importing” apples from as far as Louterwater in the Langkloof. “It adds value to not only cater for the formal sector, but also the informal buyers, and it makes pretty good business sense,” Hein adds. The hawkers come from all over the country, as far as Johannesburg to buy apples from Maluti Fruit.

Who eats an apple? Is a question one asks once one has been introduced to apple production in the Free State. Traditionally apples are more of a luxury, but an apple produced in the Free State can be a complete meal all on its own. Although the producers can realize more than R25 per kg for exquisite Pink Lady’s they get between R1 to R4 for the apples sold to hawkers. But then, Maluti Fruit sells up to 3 000 tons to hawkers. Not only does that make good business sense, it makes a difference to hungry people.

“I think the Eastern Free State has a good future regarding apples, even for Western Cape growers. Although it might seem a bit far, large growers from traditional areas can create an opportunity by adding the earliest Red Galas in the whole country to their product list. Some are already investigating.”

However, with or without them, apple production in the Free State might be small in the bigger scheme of things, but the apple future looks good. Because it is red, it is sweet, and above all, the future comes sooner in the Free State.


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