Industry experts agree that logistical problems ruined the stone fruit season, says deciduous fruit industry organisation Hortgro.
In a report that speaks of bitter disappointment, Anna Mouton writes that the season kicked off with excellent fruit set, followed by good harvest volumes especially in plums. Despite some wind damage, the volumes of export-quality fruit had producers optimistic early in the season.
“The product was good from the farm, through the pack house, and then it went to the port,” Charl Stander, technical advisor at Freshness First told Hortgro. “Then came the logistical nightmare that saw the product stay in the port for two to three weeks.”
It simply took too long
Most stone fruit cultivars must be consumed within six weeks of being harvested; packed, transported, shipped and distributed within 42 days.
“Much of the product only reached Rotterdam [in the Netherlands] at around 50 days or even later,” said Stander. “Then it still had to be distributed.”
Apart from the delays’ impact on fruit quality, the logistical problems also made it virtually impossible for exporters to react quickly to changes in harvest forecasts.
“The impact on balancing was enormous,” said Jacques du Preez, general manager of trade and markets at Hortgro, “and the untrustworthy shipping schedules made planning and management of the market extremely difficult.”
Other industries with highly perishable products – such as table grapes – were also dealt a blow. “All fruit’s volumes had basically increased, and the port didn’t keep up,” Du Preez explained. “There hadn’t been invested in equipment and infrastructure in the past ten years.”
According to Du Preez, strategies are already being put in place to ensure that the port will operate more effectively in the coming season. These include improved operational management, maintenance of existing equipment, and the acquisition of additional equipment.
Where does Putin fit in?
“The Russia-Ukraine conflict definitely contributed to the delays,” said Karin van Rensburg, technical advisor at In2Stone in the report.
Ships were rerouted from Russian ports to Rotterdam, where bottlenecks were soon experienced. “So, a week or two had been added in Cape Town, and a week or two on the other side. Before you could blink, the fruit were eight weeks old when they reached our clients,” Van Rensburg explained.
At the same time, there was an over-supply of fruit in the European market, as fruits of all kinds, usually imported through Russia, ended up in Europe, said Du Preez. This naturally impacted prices.
Then the conflict also affected fuel prices. “The supply chain got so expensive that most of the money you got back was actually eaten away by the cost,” added Van Rensburg.
Hope in America
Some good news for the stone fruit sector is that Mzansi exported about 300 000 cartons of plums and 30 000 cartons of nectarines to the United States, for the first time in decades.
“Some cultivars were a reasonably big success,” Stander told Hortgro. “It’s a new market in which the South African product earns a premium over the Chilean product.”
Du Preez said that, despite some hiccups and learning curves, this market will hopefully grow. The US is the first country to require cold treatment on stone fruit from South Africa, and the lessons learned will hopefully pave the way for exports to China, which also has cold treatment requirements.
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