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Ripe Apricots On A Tree In Orchard

Apricots: an untapped fruit on the market

By Kara van der Berg

Apricots have been eaten since ancient times. The Romans called it Praecocum – the precious one. The tiny stone fruits are packed with protein, fibre, and minerals and have been found to be effective in combating heart disease.

Yet, the apricot market in South Africa is relatively small. In 2011/12, the local market sales surpassed 3 000 tons. In 2019/20, it was less than 1 000 tons. Compared to, for instance, peaches and nectarines that sold over 35 000 tons on the local market in 2019/20.

 The availability of fresh apricots in South Africa is limited due to the very short apricot season, which is approximately only four weeks long. “It stretches from mid-November to mid-December. The outcome is that supermarket programmes can’t be constantly checked,” explains Charl Stander from Freshness First in Franschhoek.

Charl says that a lot of cultivars planted in South Africa need cold temperatures, which South Africa does not always have. “Thus, production is limited.”

Though the local market is small, a lot of apricots are exported. Most apricots grown in South Africa are exported to the Middle East (about 40%), the United Kingdom (30%), and Europe (27%).

Germany has become a major destination for apricots. “Germany has always been a big market for apricots within the EU. If we can meet their market needs, there are good opportunities [for our apricots].”

Charl was part of a study initiated and funded by Hortgro Stone to develop best practice protocols for picking and handling apricots for the export market. Apricots for the export market are harvested with extended cold storage periods in mind and therefore harvested mature, but not ripe.

Bebeco 2
The Bebeco Cultivar

 “Since apricots have to be on the ocean for long periods, the different cultivars have to have the ability to keep for longer. We are talking about a protocol period of 35 to 42 days from harvest to consumption.” It is vital that consumers should consistently have good eating experiences to ensure repeat purchases. This was not the case hence the industry initiative to develop a protocol to ensure ready-to-eat apricots are supplied to consumers.

The problem South African apricots have in overseas markets is that they are small and don’t have a rosy colour. However, Charl says there is a big opportunity for apricots if only they can be picked later – in January or February.

 According to Hortgro’s 2020 key deciduous fruit statistics, apricots made up only 4% of the total area planted of all deciduous fruit trees in South Africa. The top four apricot cultivars planted in South Africa are Bulida, Soldonne, Bebeco, and Imperial. The vast majority of apricot trees are planted in the Little Karoo.

Imperial is one of the most successful cultivars grown in SA

William-James Bussel, whose family has been farming apricots in the Montagu area since 1990, has been having success with the Bulida, Imperial and Bebeco cultivars. “I think our dry Mediterranean climate helps,” he says.

Charl Stander agrees that the dry, hot climate with cold winter without rain just before the harvest period is perfect for apricots. “Montagu meets these requirements perfectly.”

William-James says they also have protocols that they implement to ensure the best product is put on the market. “We try to pick as early as possible in the morning and have them packed and forced cooled the same day.”

Pierre Burger from Protea Farm in the Koo Valley can also attest to having success with apricots. “Carmingo, a French cultivar, is currently my best-producing product financially speaking. We enter an ’empty market’ in mid-January and that gives us great marketing scope.” According to Burger, who also produces export apples, pears, and plums, is apricots currently his frontrunner product.

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Carmingo apricots on Pierre Burger’s Protea Farm in the Koo Valley.
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