Dragon fruit farms can be found in tropical and subtropical areas across the world, including South Africa. Previously known as a bit of a bland fruit, the introduction of newer, sweeter variations has increased the potential of the fruit in the country.
Louw De Wet, the owner of Fire Fruit farm in Robertson in the Western Cape, says that the country’s dragon fruit industry has incredible potential. Under his Fire Fruit brand, De Wet not only grows dragon fruit but also has a nursery where plant propagation is done. The company is also involved in agro-processing, as well as the marketing of the fruit.
De Wet started farming with dragon fruit around 2015, a course he describes as ‘supernatural’. “I was looking through Instagram one day and I saw a photo of a cut open dragon fruit. My eyes just stopped there. I was in awe, so I started doing a bit of research.”
A sixth-generation farmer, De Wet was looking for alternative fruits to plant that would fare better in the drought the area was experiencing at the time. He did not immediately settle on the fruit, but as a rather spiritual man, started farming with dragon fruit after receiving religious guidance.
“I started doing some research and the dragon fruit sort of stuck with me, but our life went on. One day, I got a prophetic word from a lady. She said ‘there is something that you are thinking about doing on the farm, something new that hasn’t been done before. It is from the Lord.’ I immediately knew she was referring to the dragon fruit and that was my confirmation to go ahead and start pursuing this.”
De Wet says that one of the reasons he is passionate about growing dragon fruit in South Africa is because of how adaptable the fruit is. Also known as the pitaya, he explains that the dragon fruit plant is actually a type of vining cactus.
“[It is] originally believed to be from the southern Americas and is a subtropical climate cactus, so it prefers a nice humid Mediterranean climate. It is a plant that is easily adaptable to very different climatic conditions so it can go from very dry to quite wet areas as well.”
Climate and soil
As adaptable as the plant is, De Wet cautions dragon fruit farmers strongly against growing it in an area where there is harsh frost. He says that the plant is not tolerant of frost except maybe in very mild cases.
“[Mild frost] is manageable in some sense. The other thing you don’t want is ‘wet feet’. In nature, the plant grows [by] climbing up a tree or another plant, and it’s used to having a lot of organic matter at its feet, so it’s a plant that loves organic matter. So, if you can get the soil [with] good drainage and high organic material, just a good nutritious soil, then it should adapt quite well regardless of what your climate is.”
De Wet says that clay soils are not good for dragon fruit farming and recommends that the soil be enriched with mulch or some type of cover crop.
According to this guide, released by dragon fruit nursery Amorentia, dragon fruit grows well in the same climates where macadamia nuts, bananas, and avocados are grown commercially. The guide outlines the needed rainfall at between 600 to 1300mm per annum, with irrigation setting off the lack of rain in dry seasons. The guide also lists the ideal dragon fruit temperatures as between 21 to 29 degrees Celsius but confirms the adaptability of the plant as it can withstand temperatures of up to 38 to 41 degrees and even as low as -1 degrees, if there is no frost.
The dragon fruit orchard, says De Wet, is one that is quite expensive to set up. He says the operation needs to be trellised, and you may even require shade netting.
“Your trellis needs to be strong and sturdy because the plants can become quite heavy at the mature age. In certain areas, shade netting would be a massive improvement, especially in the hotter, drier areas. But if you have a more subtropical, not-so-harsh climate, then it should be fine outside in the open air.”
The plant needs to be tied to the trellis, he says, and it also needs to be pruned so it can grow in the right way.
As with of most types of fruit farming, proper cold storage after the plant is harvested is essential. De Wet says that dragon fruit require special handling and care after harvest.
“It’s crucial the fruit, after being harvested, is handled and stored at the right temperatures to ensure a long shelf life of 40 days or more. So, there is some big infrastructure that needs to be laid out for in order for dragon fruit to be farmed successfully.”
At Fire Fruit farm, they do not use any harsh chemicals to farm their produce. Since farming dragon fruit is relatively new in South Africa, De Wet says that there are few products actually designed for it.
“[It’s] a blessing in disguise, because it made me consider or take the initiative of being more organic, friendly and regenerative. We are not using any herbicides, [and only] some fertilisers. And we don’t spray any harsh chemicals.”
The lady of the night
De Wet describes the dragon fruit as a “miraculous” plant. He says that it is definitely a niche crop, and you need to know what you are doing when managing it.
“It is a plant that is very explosive and absolutely miraculous [because of] the way it produces fruit and the flowers. It makes a big, normally white, flower that opens for one night only. That’s why they also call it ‘the lady of the night’.”
Dragon fruit matures around 50 days after pollination. While some variants of dragon fruit can be pollinated through non-natural means, the newer variants are pollinated naturally. At Fire Fruit, the plants are pollinated during the day through the use of bees.
“In South Africa, we mostly use bees to do the pollination. They do quite a good job at it if you have the correct amount of bees at your orchard at the right time.”
The dragon fruit market
Most of the world’s dragon fruit production takes place in Asia, with Vietnam being the biggest producer in the world. While the dragon fruit market in South Africa is still young, our harvesting season is what opens the international market to us.
“Southern Africa has a unique window frame in which we can produce fruits where the two biggest producing countries are not in production yet. And we have the advantage of quite a long season, where generally the first fruits in [are harvested] around November or December. And in the Western Cape, I’ve even harvested my last fruit in July. So, it’s a season that can be five or six months long, which is quite a nice stretch.”
Locally, De Wet explains that South African customers don’t know too much about dragon fruit. He says the industry is trying to boost awareness of dragon fruit, with both customers and retailers.
“It’s a lot of groundwork [that] needs to be done with customers, like informing them about the health benefits, and also the correct way to store and use the produce. There’s a lot of [raising awareness] that needs to [happen], especially with the supermarkets and the retailers [who are] stocking the product.”
De Wet is optimistic about the local market and says that there is still a lot of room for growth.
Some of the dragon fruit cultivars on the market are bland in taste, says De Wet, which affects how customers perceive the fruit. He explains that the poor-tasting fruit inhibit customers from buying dragon fruit, which is why Fire Fruit is so invested in branding.
“If a customer buys a product and it’s not good tasting, then they are not likely to buy it again. It’s a very sensitive market in that sense. But we as Fire Fruit, we specialise and focus on the best tasting varieties. We have some branding that sort of differentiates us from the other fruits on the market, so that in the end, that brand recognition is the way we inform customers that this is a good-tasting fruit.”
Another problem De Wet faces is that some of the producers sell the fruit for very low prices, which he says undermines the industry. He says farmers need to decide on a “floor” price, or a minimum price, to keep some consistency in the market.
“Dragon fruit is expensive to farm, expensive to produce and of course, the producers need to get the return on investment. So, [farmers] need to ensure that [they] have a minimum floor price. Without one, [very low prices] create fluctuations in the market, meaning it will not be sustainable for very long unless we have a good, consistent market price.”
Another difficulty in the dragon fruit industry is the lack of knowledge around growing the product. He says that he is involved in the founding of the Dragon Fruit Association of South Africa and wants all aspiring dragon fruit farmers to join the organisation.
“We ask that any and all prospective dragon fruit farmers become part of this association because we will do a lot of groundwork and research, especially related to what varieties are the best, and what has to be done [in respect of] fertiliser, chemicals, etc. There’s a lot of effort that goes into this and it will benefit the whole industry in the long term.”
To De Wet, working with dragon fruit is worth the challenges.
“It’s such an amazing fruit. If you cut it open, see the interior, the way the plant opens at night, and the bees, how they work – it’s just supernatural. There are many challenges, but the rewards and the highlights are definitely, in my opinion, outweighing the challenges and the difficulties.”
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