A quiet revolution is taking place in the orchards of the Western Cape. After decades of trying to coax fruit onto the trees with the aid of chemicals, fruit farmers are packing in the pesticides and deciding to grow green.
Organic farming has come to South Africa, where it is being billed, not only as a profitable enterprise, but also as a panacea for poor soil quality in growing regions.
AdvertisementFrom an estimated 5 million rand ($700,000) before 2003, sales of organic food grown in South Africa - domestic sales and exports combined - jumped to 155 million rand ($21 million) in 2005, with an exponential increase expected again in 2006/07, according to Organics South Africa trade organization.
After a slow start the rate of conversion to organic farming has accelerated. Of the 230 certified organic or in-conversion operations in South Africa in 2005, 75 percent have started organic processes in the previous two years.
South African retailers are also, belatedly, falling in behind organics. Organic tomatoes, apples and potatoes are now widely available in supermarkets, from the mass-market Pick 'n Pay and Chequers chains to the tonier Woolworths.
In an emerging market such as South Africa the move to organic production is usually an economic rather than an ideologically driven decision.
With the global market for organic food growing at a runaway 35 percent, new suppliers are being urgently sought, particularly in Europe and the US.
In these markets, high labour costs act as a deterrent to a shift to organic farming. South African farmers, on the other hand, have access to a large pool of cheap labour. With a minimum wage of 885 rand a month for farm workers in rural areas, most commercial farmers can afford several pairs of hands when it comes to weeding.
For Modderfontein Farm's Mike Stekhoven the shift to organics on his 2,500-hectare farm two hours north of Cape Town was the only way to secure future profitability.
"I'm a businessman," he says. "Conventional farming offers no return."
The citrus industry, like the wine industry, is periodically beset by gluts in production, pushing down prices and squeezing producers' margins.
Apart from higher prices for organics, decades of heavy nitrate and fertilizer usage has robbed the already poor soil of its nutrients.
Hennie Saaiman, a potato farmer-turned consultant on biological agriculture, notes that in the late 1970s, 20 kg of nitrates were recommended to secure two tonnes of wheat in South Africa. Today, to obtain the same yield itrequires an input of 55 kg.
"If we hadn't made that change (to organic farming) we wouldn't still be here," says Mike Prevost, owner of Lorraine Farm in the Elgin Valley, who pioneered the production of organic apples and pears in the area east of Cape Town in the late 1990s.
Fruit farming is notorious for heavy spraying regimes, he says. While it rids the fruit of pesky bugs it also kills off friendly bacteria. The more Mike sprayed, the more fertilizer he needed, locking him into a vicious cycle of rising inputs costs.
Nourished by compost made of cow manure, bird droppings, mulched apple and other natural ingredients, the soil now boasts a richer moister texture, and, Prevost maintains, his fruit has "better legs" to withstand extreme weather.
Fruit farmers complain of mildew on grapes from un-seasonal rains and of unduly hot spells robbing apples of moisture.
Whatever the reasons for the shift, organic farmers are assured of a market for their output, with signs of South African, European and American importers all starting to vie for supply.
Tired of being thrown low-grade fruit by producers who send the cream of their crop overseas, Pick 'n Pay is backing a scheme to boost production and ensure a more varied supply.
Organic Freedom Project, a non-profit organisation, recently announced plans to create 100,000 jobs in organic food and bio fuel production in South Africa by 2014.
Europe's largest organic fruit and vegetable importer, Dutch company Eosta is also looking to secure its supply lines in South Africa against competition from American importers willing to pay almost double for a carton of oranges.