The 2015/16 season was an exceptionally good one for the watermelon industry, with a long, dry and therefore disease-free season. Consumers had a large appetite for watermelons during the heat of the drought, prices were high and consequently watermelon plantings increased for the 2016/17 season.
The drought now seems largely broken, with good rains since Christmas, resulting in a large supply of watermelons but decreased consumption during overcast weather, and prices are down from last year.
There seems to be a north-south division within the industry: growers as well as consumers in the north prefer the large, oblong All Sweet varieties while growers in the Western and Eastern Cape tend more towards smaller, round varieties, like Star Crimson or Fascination. Only a few growers produce seedless watermelons; these are often processed for fruit salad. The seed is more expensive and, according to Alpha Seed breeder Bill Kerr, more finicky to germinate. Some years ago yellow- and orange-fleshed watermelons were put on the market but didn’t find favour with consumers.
The total volumes produced in South Africa are unknown as there’s no statutory body for the industry. It is estimated by Hennie Souer, a BothaRoodt market agent who specialises in watermelons, that about 2 million individual watermelons are annually sold at the Tshwane Fresh Produce Market, but this doesn’t take account of those sold at the other fresh produce markets nor those directly sold to supermarkets.
The informal market for watermelons is growing. At Tshwane Fresh Produce Market buyers for the informal market (street vendors) account for about 40% of sales. Watermelons aren’t formally exported but buyers from neighbouring countries obtain supply in South Africa.
Long harvest season
Harvesting starts around mid-September from the far north of the country close to Botswana and Zimbabwe. Watermelons from the central Free State as well as the Western and Eastern Cape come onto the market from mid-December through to February. The season normally ends mid-April.
In the north of the country towards Namibia, along the Orange River, Karsten Boerdery produces Carmen F1 watermelons, a Crimson Sweet hybrid, chosen for its good shipping ability and shelf life. They produce about 7,000 watermelons per hectare, says Simon van Blerk of Karsten. The enterprise has experienced water restrictions but through good water management and drip irrigation, they have managed good yields, although high temperatures sometimes produce abnormalities in fruit size.
One of the major watermelon growers in the country is Carel Roos of CJ Roos Boerdery in Lephalale, close to the borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe. Roos is still a firm believer in the All Sweet cultivar and plants about 300ha with it annually. He obtains extra vigour and disease resistance from cucurbit rootstocks like Ferro. Roos explains that whereas before they followed a 12-year rotation cycle, they can now plant watermelons in the same ground for five years running, complemented with soil anti-fungal fumigation.
In the Eastern Cape Habata grows a smaller, rounded, seedless watermelon, a Syngenta variety called Fascination. “South Africa is one of the few places in the world where people still prefer seeded watermelons,” says Gary Webb, director of production at Habata. “However, these days supermarkets sell watermelons cut up into halves or quarters which fit easier into a fridge. Families get smaller, so increasingly people are looking for smaller watermelons.”
Seedless varieties are always grown on cucurbit rootstocks. Habata’s plantings of Fascination is coupled with a pollinator watermelon, Tiger F1 in their case, making up 25% of their total planting. It gives them a long season, from mid-December until mid-April.
Cucurbit rootstocks are still very expensive and only employed by the larger watermelon growers. They, however, now regard it as indispensable for watermelon production.
Roos, farming very close to the Tropic of Capricorn, predicts that more watermelon growers will enter the field now that the drought has ended: “A farmer who experiences cash flow problems plants watermelons. You can just load them on the back of your bakkie [small pick-up truck], you don’t need to buy expensive packaging materials. But many farmers underestimate how labour-intensive it is to grow watermelons successfully. I see many farmers planting watermelons but I don’t see their watermelons on the market. The main things are location and soil moisture. Up here in north, the heat can burn watermelons to death if there’s not sufficient soil moisture.”