Many industries are still counting losses and trying to pick up the pieces after Covid-19, but the kiwifruit industry is seemingly doing exceptionally well. And it has managed to sustain much-needed jobs in provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
Food For Mzansi caught up with a leading gold kiwifruit farmer in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal. We asked Peter Nicholson, employing 50 full-time staff and 20 on a part-time basis, to help us understand how he and fellow farmers kept it together despite the challenges the country has faced over the last two years amid the pandemic, ailing economy, protests and sky-rocketing input prices.
Tiisetso Manoko: Who is Peter Nicholson and how did you start farming kiwifruit?
Peter Nicholson: I am a fifth-generation farmer here in middle KwaZulu-Natal, close to Richmond. My dad planted kiwis in 1983, so we have always grown kiwis. I got back onto the farm in 2004 and in 2010 trialled the first gold kiwis. We started planting the first gold kiwis in 2012.
What has been the industry’s greatest achievement thus far in South Africa?
The fact that we are doing it. It has been very challenging over the years. We have done wrong varieties, wrong root stocks, wrong management techniques and a whole bunch of things, so the fact that we are still here, despite all the troubles we went through, is quite a great achievement after about seven to eight years doing this.
[We were] starting something for the first time and we did not realise how difficult it was going to be. Especially having green kiwifruit, that is so easy to grow, we just assumed the gold kiwis were going to be similar, but it was very different and much more technical.
What are the industry challenges and how do kiwifruit producers overcome them?
The challenges are not receiving much support from government, and working with unskilled labour. There is not much we can do about government, unfortunately. But in terms of labour, we obviously need to train more.
What’s your advice to young farmers who want to venture into kiwifruit farming?
Yoh… that is a difficult one, hey. All I can say is, make sure you have deep pockets. It is very capital intensive. And work out how much you can afford to do. Once you have worked that out, plant half of what you think you can do. You want to learn from people like myself who have paid all the school fees.
To ensure continued growth and job security, what do you think are the areas of improvement?
We need to increase the food size and improve our quality. We need to work hard. I think the industry is the most exciting thing in South African agriculture at the moment: high-yielding, high-value crops for exports. And we have a window period of four to six weeks before New Zealand starts to pick and they have about 8 000ha while we have 20 000ha. So, we are slowly starting to see what we are doing.
The industry still has a lot to offer to the South African agricultural sector and all stakeholders need to work together to realise the importance and growth of the industry over the years.
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