Mzansi’s avocado industry is flourishing, with the country producing over 130 000 tons of the fruit in 2021. We spoke to industry experts Michael Muller, Lauren Strever and Stephen Mantso about what aspiring avocado farmers need to know before they get started.
High in vitamins and minerals, avocados are an incredibly popular fruit that is grown primarily in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Mantso, from the South African Avocado Growers Association (SAGA), says farmers in the industry have been planting new trees and investing in new technologies.
“We’ve seen lot of farmers trying to introduce new technologies which are good for production; which are sustainable, and good for the environment as well; which include [managing] water [use]; and which include [managing] the vicinity around where the farmers are working.”
He explains that about 45% of the total production in the country is exported, and that there has been an increase in both the formal and informal domestic markets.
“The number of the fruit that goes through to retail production or the retail supply in South Africa has been increasing and we’ve even seen the number of informal traders showing an increase. Our main [avocado] processing in South Africa is oil and guacamole.”
The right climate
Avocado plants flourish in cool, subtropical areas, which is why they are primarily grown in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Mantso says that the areas in which avocados are grown across the country form a “green belt”, as they are particularly lush.
“There’s a lot of rainfall in these regions and the soil is very cold. That’s why it is considered a subtropical area. There are, however, a number of things that must be considered when you are planting avocado in this region. The first one is frost. If the area has frost, the frost must not be what we call a ‘black frost’.”
While the trees are able to tolerate light frost, black frost, Mantso says, is extremely cold and limits the trees from growing. He explains that farmers can determine whether they have black frost by looking at their pipes.
“When you check your water pipes, your normal water pipes freeze so that the water cannot flow. That’s how you know that you have black frost in the area. A place with black frost cannot grow avocado.”
According to this guide, by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, the ideal average temperature to grow avocados ranges between 20 to 25°C. During flowering, the temperature needs to be above 18°C, though some cultivars can handle temperatures as low as 13°C.
The right soil
Planting avocados can be an expensive venture. It makes sense then to have the soil you wish to plant in analysed first to see if it meets the soil requirements for avocados. Those requirements include a reddish-brown, red, and dark brown soil colour, with a clay content between 20 and 40%. The clay content helps with water retention, though if the clay content is too high, high rainfall and over-irrigation can lead to water-logged soil that causes root rot.
Mantso explains that avocado trees cannot do well on sandy soils. He says that sandy soils do not produce trees of good enough quality, making the fruit from these trees sub-par.
“A lot of farmers are not producing enough quality and enough quantity through sandy soil production because it delays the production, and the soil becomes [too] hot in winter. One of the things which avocado doesn’t want is that the soil is too hot in the summertime.”
The right amount of water
Avocados are not drought-resistant, and almost always need supplementary irrigation. The plant requires rainfall of more than 1000mm annually, spread fairly evenly throughout the year. Supplementary irrigation is needed during the dry parts of the year. This is also why the plants require a high level of humidity, as the humidity limits water stress.
Avocados also cannot flourish in oversaturated or waterlogged conditions, which is why the correct irrigation methods need to be used. Trees require frequent, light watering, the amount of which depends on how mature the trees are. Using a flooding system to irrigate the trees is not recommended, but a dragline sprinkler system or a microjet system comes highly recommended.
The right tree
Muller, from Muller Farming Trust, says that avocado trees produce quite quickly, though the first harvest will very likely not bear much fruit. He explains that someone growing avocados in their backyard will likely use seeds from the fruit sold on the shelf, and end up with disappointing results. He explains that this is why commercial farmers need to source their genetics from a qualified nursery.
“For that reason, if I go into commercial production, it’ll be important to acquire the trees from a commercial nursery. Obviously, there are quite a variety of cultivars that are available, and once I acquire the fruit tree, it’s already more or less one year old.
“It is weened and, once planted, I can expect that by the next flowering season this little tree might push its first little flowers and of those, there might be the first setting of fruit. The year after that, we’ll have the first one or two or three fruit on that tree, obviously depending on the different cultivars.”
There are a number of cultivars available in South Africa. The SAGA lists Edranol, Hass, Maluma-Hass, Reed, Fuerte, Lamb-Hass, Pinkerton, and Ryan as the most common.
Strever, from Amorentia Nursery, explains that the cost of avocado trees differs depending on cultivar and of course, the nursery that sells them. Streever says at Amorentia the trees range from R130 per tree, and that they use a grafting method to determine the cultivar.
“[We have to graft the cultivar onto the rootstock to determine or to create the required and the desired cultivar. Other nurseries also produce what they call a clonal rootstock, which is a more complicated process.”
Strever emphasises the importance of sourcing your trees from a commercial nursery.
“It’s always important to source your trees from a commercial nursery that has the experience and the know-how. There’s a lot of protocols that go into the sanitary environment and sourcing the correct plant material so that you actually end up with a superior tree of the right cultivar, with a good healthy root system.”
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