The harvesting season of the cactus pear, a fruit battling to shed its Cinderella status despite its exemplary nutritional value, has come to an end in South Africa.
Not only did the export market collapse in 2015 with no prospect for recovery, but ZZ2 has now decided to discontinue its cactus pear line. From peak production years, during the years 2006 to 2009, when Terence Unterpertinger (currently of Kruger Berries) produced 350t for export and 450t for the local market, supplemented by neighbouring cactus pear growers in the Haenertsburg area, export has ceased and the local market is dependent on small-scale growers dotted around the country.
ZZ2 had taken over production of a former cactus pear export farm in the Mooketsi area. They put all their formidable marketing resources into the fruit, giving it two years, but eventually the investment didn’t pay off. “Due to the drought over the last few years the plants came under a lot of pressure. The sizing of the fruit has therefore been very small and not suited for the export market. As cactus pears are not our major focus, it was decided to discontinue this line,” says Clive Garrett, ZZ2 marketing manager.
Currently a small number of growers, mostly in the Highveld area of Gauteng and Mpumalanga, produce the fruit for a stagnant local market. Daan Boraine of Prickly Business in Pretoria had a harvest of 60 000kg over a harvesting period of seven weeks starting December 2016. “Volumes are up 60% from 2015 when the fruit ripened overnight in temperatures of over 40°C. I am very satisfied with this year’s harvest.” His 14ha of cactus pears are on dry land, keeping production costs manageable. He markets his own fruit at the Tshwane and Johannesburg fresh produce markets and via Freshmark (the fresh produce distribution channel of pan-African retail giant Shoprite) it is distributed countrywide, even into Namibia.
“Supply exceeds demand and the problem is that almost the entire crop ripens simultaneously, during January and February, pushing down prices. It is strategically very important where the fruit is planted. We have found, during our trials, that the season can be extended if cactus fruit is planted in cooler areas,” says Dr Herman Fouché, cactus pear researcher at the University of the Free State.
The South African cactus pear export industry faced a number of challenges with very little support. “The noose was getting tighter and tighter,” says Unterpertinger, who used to farm cactus pears on 120ha. “At the end of the season, we just broke even on cactus pears for the local market. We made our money on the export market but it was getting harder and harder to sell. We ran out of ideas to get around spraying for cochineal, as chemical spraying wasn’t allowed by the EU and production costs just kept going up. There were post-harvest problems, the fruit didn’t keep in storage. It’s a volume-driven industry and our return was just too low.”
The problem was compounded by a lack of interest in the white-fleshed Morado variety overseas, and Unterpertinger did start converting to the red-fleshed Algerian variety. “But by then it was just too little, too late.” He has since turned his attention to blueberries with low chilling requirements, in the Letsitele Valley.
Cactus pears, also called prickly pears, labour under the weight of negative perceptions, from its spines to its colour. “People buy cactus pears out of sentimental considerations, people who grew up on farms,” says Unterpertinger. “There is no market expansion and in particular, no penetration of the black consumer market.” Fouché agrees: “We have asked street hawkers whether they’d sell cactus pears but they don’t regard it as a fruit. It’s something you have to take home to eat.” Interestingly, he notes that the homely cactus pear is now marketed as an exotic fruit at some upmarket Cape Town fresh produce outlets.
South African consumers, especially older ones, are also prejudiced against yellow- and red-fleshed cactus pears. “It reminds them of the red-fleshed 'beesturksvy' [Opuntia robusta] that is planted as cattle fodder. Its fruit is very mealy with a poor taste. Therefore we have selected for white flesh, like the Morado variety. You won’t find yellow- or red-fleshed cactus pears on the shelves in Bloemfontein [capital city of the Free State Province, a major beef-producing region]”, he continues.
Some South African farmers are pressing cactus pear seed oil for export, a very valuable commodity used in the cosmetics industry.