JOHANNESBURG – Whether you like to squash it on to your toast in the morning, millennial-style, eat it to cut your cholesterol with healthy unsaturated oil, or moisturise your face with it – if you live in the West, you’re probably rarely far from an avocado.
And that is very good news for South Africa’s farmers, struggling with drought, who are switching to a crop whose farm-gate price has risen 130percent since 2008.
Already, South Africa generates around R1.85billion a year from avocados, producing around 125000 tons and exporting more than half to Europe.
It takes six years to get an avocado plantation into production, but that is not putting farmers off.
“Forestry plantations are being felled and cleared and avocados planted,” said Derek Donkin, chief executive of the South African Subtropical Growers’ Association.
“There are also areas that were either bush or some grazing that have been planted to avocados.”
There are currently about 16500 hectares of avocado plantations, and that area is growing by about 1000 hectares a year.
Traditionally, avocados were grown in humid sub-tropical climates in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, but now they are being planted in the drier Eastern Cape and Western Cape provinces.
Techniques such as drip irrigation, which drips water slowly on to the soil, and planting orchids on ridges to reduce surface run-off help to make the most of the water available.
“Traditionally, no one would ever dream about planting down there, but you need to pioneer – much like this farm was pioneered more than 100 years ago,” said Craig Lewis, an executive at the producer HL Hall & Sons on a farm near Nelspruit.
The firm hopes that its trial plantation in the Western Cape – hit hard by drought this year – might allow it to extend what is now a six-month season to 10 months, to supply a global year-round demand.
“Although South Africa is planting 1000 hectares a year, we would like to plant a lot more,” Lewis said.
Donkin said the rate could hit as much as 2000 hectares a year within the next few years.
On a smaller scale, Tom Mdluli manages 188 employees on a 6000-hectare community farm in Mpumalanga owned by a Trust.
It exports around 80percent of its 260 hectares’ worth of avocados – and is planning to expand by another 120 hectares. Even the wines famously grown in the Cape provinces may one day have to move aside for the avocado.
“They swop the annual crops like maize, cotton and alfalfa for more permanent crops,” said Wessel Lemmer, senior agricultural economist at Absa Bank.
“They even take out vines.”