Growing apples is a global business – from Washington to New Zealand and from Chile to Japan, growers work through the year to produce the highest quality fruit. But how does apple cultivation differ between different growing areas?
Are there challenges that all growers face?At Outfield, our core training datasets for our systems have been gathered from orchards in two particular regions: the UK and South Africa’s Western Cape. So let’s look at how apple production compares between these two geographies.
Spring time is the start of the growing season for fruit growers. Spring in the UK typically starts in March and extends to May, with the apple blossom period usually occurring across a week or two in April. The blossom period is short, and trees go from bud burst to petal fall in 5-7 days.
In South Africa’s Western Cape growing area, spring time takes place from September to November, with apple blossoms typically happening in October. As the winter months are not as cold as UK winters, the trees don’t get as much dormant time which in turn makes the blossom period in South Africa longer. Trees will produce flowers over the course of several weeks, often producing flowers in waves. This causes headaches for growers during fruit development and maturation as the different blooming times result in a tree carrying fruit that is several weeks more mature than other fruit on the same tree. This makes harvesting the fruit at the correct time challenging.
During blossom, growers in the UK will worry continuously about frost, as a single night of below freezing temperatures while the vulnerable flowers are open can wreck an entire crop. South Africa however rarely gets frosts meaning this is not a concern for growers there.
Both British and South African growers rely on external pollinators brought into the orchards, in particular honeybees. However UK growers can also rely on native pollinators to carry some of the load, in particular bumble bees and wasps. In South Africa, there are no native insect pollinators that add value on a commercial scale.
As the growing season gets underway, growers in both the UK and South Africa face many of the same challenges. Managing crop loading on the tree to ensure high quality production is vitally important, however the approach to orchard maintenance and preparation in the two regions is very different.
South Africa has much lower labour costs than Europe, and South African growers can use this advantage to employ a more manual growing style. Western Cape growers can rely on hand thinning, while growers in the UK will try to minimise the amount of labour deployed in the field during the season. To reduce the need for hand thinning, more and more UK growers are relying on chemical thinning of the trees, although this can be hard to get right without accurate crop data.
The most obvious difference between UK and South African orchards is the size of the trees. In South Africa, apple trees regularly reach 5 metres in height, and you will find it difficult to find any trees below 3 metres. 3 metres however is the maximum height for most orchards in the UK. Big trees in South Africa reflect the abundance of sunlight the crop receives, but also a need for more foliage to shade the fruit. In the UK, smaller trees are the result of widespread use of dwarfing rootstocks, keeping the trees shorter and therefore less labour intensive to manage.
The intense sunlight means that South African growers make use of netting for shade, preventing apples (particularly green varieties) from bleaching. In the UK netting is also gaining popularity, but mostly as a preventative measure against hail storms in the UK summers rather than the sun.
Irrigation is essential in South African production, and a big feature you will see in fruit growing regions are the small reservoirs or “dams” that collect rainwater in the winter for use during the hot summers. Without daily irrigation, apple cultivation simply would not be possible in South Africa. However UK growers also rely on irrigation, and most orchards planted in the country in the last 15 years are artificially irrigated.
The approaches to managing pests and diseases are different too. UK growers worry most about fungal diseases such as scab due to the damper climate, while South African farmers spend more effort battling insect pests like codling moth. And the larger field pests also have some differences too. UK growers will often complain about soil damage caused by badgers or rabbits, while South African growers in more remote areas complain about tree damage from troops of baboons or herds of wild pigs!
In the UK, apple production (both for cider and for dessert or eating apples) is focused on domestic consumption. By contrast, the South African apple growing industry is focused on production for export. Most South African growers sell their fruit through an exporter organisation that will ship the fruit to Europe, North America and Asia. This difference is reflected in the headline production statistics for the two countries.
According to statistics from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2021 South Africa produced 1,100,000 tonnes of apples and exported 589,000 of those tonnes. The UK produced less than half of that at 460,000 tonnes, but exported only a tiny 11,000 tonnes.
In 2021, South Africa harvested 270,840 hectares of apples, while the UK only harvested 14,000 hectares (the UK area includes cider production, dessert apples in the UK account for only about 5000 hectares of production). Nationally, South Africa’s yield was 41 tonnes/ha whereas the UK yield was just 31 tonnes/ha, so South Africa grows more hectares and grows more on each hectare.
While total UK apple production is much smaller than South Africa, it is higher in value. The gross production value of apples grown in the UK in 2021 was £578 m (US$728 m), while South Africa’s 2021 harvest – that was 2.4 times larger – was worth only £463 m (US$583 m).
Compare and contrast:
It’s a sad fact of modern living that a consumer in the supermarket picking up a pack of delicious red Gala apples often doesn’t stop to think about where those apples have come from. But whether those apples have come from an orchard in the rolling hills of Kent or an orchard at the edge of the karoo in Western Cape, there is a grower working tirelessly year round to grow them. While we see many differences between fruit growing regions, we also see a lot of similarities. But so far, the baboons only seem to be an issue in South Africa.