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20231210 122006

Lessons learnt Down Under

Hortgro’s Dr Minette Karsten and Marno van der Westhuizen recently completed Hortgro’s two-year industry leadership development programme. The programme culminates with an international study tour to gain international exposure.  Karsten and van der Westerhuizen formed part of a group that travelled to Australia and New Zealand on a three-week tour. They were accompanied by Prof Wiehann Steyn, programme Steering Committee member and tour leader.

The trip started in Australia with a visit to Monash University to learn about their advancements in robotics and mechanisation followed by pome fruit orchard visits in the West Gippsland and Yarra Valley region. Hereafter the group attended the five-day II International Symposium on Precision Management of Orchards and Vineyards in Tatura, Victoria.

Post-symposium, the group travelled to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand for a week-long visit to, i.a., the New Zealand industry body, Plant and Food Research, horticultural consultancy groupings, cultivar companies and of course orchards.

Key learnings

Van der Westhuizen, Hortgro Science’s research implementation manager, mentioned some key learnings they gained in New Zealand and Australia.

South Africa retains a significant cost advantage over Australia and New Zealand, keeping in mind that cost is relative. These countries have extremely high labour costs, in addition to limited access to labour, and this is the main reason for the drive behind mechanisation and automation. It was mentioned on several occasions that the New Zealand apple industry cannot compete with South Africa in the market for smaller fruit due to their high costs. They are forced to produce either bigger fruit or have a unique product in the market.

Planting systems are designed for suitability for mechanisation to reduce costs, and improve pack-out percentages and production of high-quality fruit. Although a variety of training systems are still used, most involve narrower, more efficient tree canopies and narrower row widths with the shared advantage of improved fruit quality and labour efficiency. New Zealand is transitioning towards new, higher-value cultivars, with volumes of the traditional varieties in decline. This could provide South Africa with the potential opportunity to fill the gap in traditional commodity varieties.

Shared challenges

It was interesting to note the similarity in challenges faced by South Africa and New Zealand, including biosecurity. New Zealand puts a significant amount of effort, money, and time into surveillance to prevent exotic pests and diseases from entering and establishing in the country. In terms of crop protection, fire blight and European canker, which neither are present in South Africa, are their biggest challenges, and after seeing the devastation it can cause, it is something we should keep out of our country.

Other common challenges discussed included stricter conditions for accessing and maintaining markets, the loss of key crop protection options, and sustainability.

More information regarding the trip will soon be available on Hortgro Science and the South African Fruit Journal.

Caption from left to right: Jaco Bruwer, Wiehann Steyn, Ross Heyns, Minette Karsten, Wilhelm Loock, Gerrit van der Merwe, Marno vd Westhuizen.

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