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By Grethe Bestbier

Last season’s drought taught us much more than that what we already know about water management, irrigation, mulching, and other water-efficient techniques. But most importantly, it demonstrated the resilience of the deciduous fruit industry. Grethe Bestbier spoke to several technical advisors about lessons learnt during the 2017-18 drought. 

Crises can come into our lives, despite our best efforts to avoid them, and sometimes it can be turned into an opportunity. These words of wisdom come from Dutoit Agri’s Research and Development Manager, Willie Kotze. If you look at crises from a different perspective, you might learn how to take advantage of it – such was the case with the previous season’s drought, he reminisces.

“The drought forced us to sharpen our knowledge. We learnt to get along with less water and waste less,” says Kotze.

According to Wiehann Steyn, Assistant General Manager at Hortgro Science, the most important lessons learnt were in the area of irrigation. “There were many ways that producers stretched irrigation during the drought. Some growers simply allowed longer intervals between irrigations or used less water during each irrigation. Many already used mulch to reduce surface evaporation.”

Kromco’s Technical Manager, Anton Müller, says it was crucial to increasingly shift the focus to drip irrigation during the dry season. “No one will ever think about water in the same way again,” says Müller. “In the past, there were certain speculations that people now know to be the truth. For years there was this perception that you can’t really use drip irrigation to produce apples and pears, and I think this idea has been broken now.”

The general feeling, says Steyn, is that given the challenging circumstances, the industry did not do too poorly, and this is largely thanks to good management, thorough planning, and various interventions.

Whether the strategy was drip irrigation, mulching or other techniques, extensive planning was vital to ensure successful produce last year. Dutoit Agri worked out a solid strategy ahead of the year, says Kotze, using drought management tips published by Hortgro. Its starting point was setting up a so-called water budget for the season to determine which orchards will be fully irrigated and where they will save water. Orchards that they had planned to remove in the near future, because of low profitability, were pulled out. Where this was not the case, they reduced the harvest drastically according to the water availability. With young trees, however, irrigation was non-negotiable – these trees are the future and were not left with too little water.

They also relied on water saving techniques such as short-radius irrigation, ensuring that only the effective root depth is reached, and very importantly, invested in mulching. They had a long-term strategy but their immediate goal was the conservation of the orchards. “It was expensive to get the right technology in place during the drought, but we reaped the benefits,” says Kotze.

This does not mean that they were immune to the drought’s impact. According to Kotze, Dutoit Agri saw increased cases of large fruit with bitterpit in Golden Delicious apples, more prominent tips and uneven maturing in some stone fruit, as well as a few cases of fast-decreasing firmness during storage of some pears and Royal Gala apples. Good chemical thinning early in the season greatly contributed to good fruit size overall. Only in extreme cases did orchards bear fruit where size was a problem.

Looking to the future and the possible knock-on effects of the drought, Müller says that it is hard to predict the drought’s future consequences by just looking at the trees. He does not expect major long-term effects, and Kotze agrees.

“Most of the orchards recovered well after the drought and the carry-over effect is limited,” says Kotze. “There is a small percentage of orchards with a lighter harvest this year. I guess it is a combination of lower reserve status and the heat wave in October that delivered a weaker set. There are also single cases where orchards’ growth and root volume were damaged. This is mostly on sites where water was restricted for the past three years.”

According to Steyn, it is not only the agricultural industry that learned important lessons, but also the general public. Where people from cities and urban areas previously might have thought it a good idea to cut off water supplies to farms and simply import fruit, the drought caused them to understand the complexity and importance of agriculture in our country.  As Steyn explains, it is not that simple. Without water, trees can undergo damage that may last for seasons to come. If agriculture suffers, jobs suffer, the government suffers, shipping companies, irrigation companies, and many small towns that revolve around agriculture suffer. Thousands of extra people then need to be absorbed and accommodated by the cities which would create social and welfare problems.

“I think the interconnectedness of things, like where water and food come from, is a positive lesson for the general public,” says Steyn.

However, even though people are more informed and the city of Cape Town has reduced their daily water use from 1.2 billion to about 600 million liters, and therefore theoretically compete less with agriculture for water supply, the problem is still far from solved. Water is still our single biggest restriction in the Cape, and even more, needs to be done to assure its sustainability.

“If you look at the Ceres area, there is a lot of land available to plant apples, but you cannot plant more because there is not enough water. Water has always been a limitation,” says Steyn. “We know it will rain less in the future and we know the city of Cape Town will grow. So, the water demand will increase while there is less of the resource available. This means that we can’t continue doing what we are doing at this stage.”

Even if it was just reinforcing what was already known, lessons learned during times of drought should be remembered and implemented even in times of abundant rain, as water shortages are the reality in the agricultural community of South Africa. It is a permanent fixture, and the crisis has definitely helped prepare the industry for the way forward.

“A positive thing is that our industry is much more resilient than people think,” says Steyn. “A shake-out (such as the drought) every now and then, may actually benefit the industry in the long run.”

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