South African stonefruit shipper fortunes have been relatively mixed so far this campaign, with good performances from nectarines and plums in contrast to a more challenging situation for peaches and apricots.
Hortgro trade and markets manager Jacques du Preez said ongoing drought conditions had generally resulted in slightly smaller fruit, but eating quality and sugar levels had been on point.
He also emphasised the rand's strengthening against other currencies as an underlying issue.
"If you just take the pound, this week compared to last year at the same time we are 27% stronger. Then on the euro we're 16% stronger and 14% stronger for the dollar. It's been a bit tough," he told PBUK.
"What we normally see is the input cost goes up with the exchange when the rand weakens, but it never comes down again when the rand strengthens. So there’s going to be a lot of pressure on growers with the increased production costs."
The apricot campaign has now all but ended, with exports surpassing pre-season estimates and finishing up around 11% higher than last year.
"We had good quality and slightly smaller fruit. Marketing conditions have been relatively tough so far this year," he said.
Almost half of exports have gone to the Middle East, with the remainder split between the U.K. and Europe.
As the nectarine season enters into the second half, exports remain in line with projected year-on-year increase of about 4% and Du Preez noted the season's peak volumes had arrived around a week early.
The campaign will be in a quiet period throughout much of January until volumes of late varieties pick up in weeks 4 and 5, but the representative said so far everything had been progressing well.
"In terms of nectarines at this stage demand is higher than supply actually," he said, adding nearly two-thirds of exports have ended up in the U.K.
Unexplained demand fall for peaches
While there have been no major issues with the nectarine deal, the same cannot be said for peaches. Du Preez described the peach market as 'extremely difficult' this year, in part due to diminishing demand for the traditional varieties that are abundant in South Africa.
"There is this trend in Europe toward the flat peaches, which we don’t really have, we’ve got the dessert peaches. It's been extremely challenging," he said.
Currently very limited volumes of flat peaches are available from South Africa and it is still in experimental phase. Logistics and postharvest handling remains some of the biggest challenges.
Aside from the trend toward flat varieties, Du Preez said it was unclear exactly why demand was falling for peaches.
"In general our fruit is slightly smaller this year, but the sugars and eating quality is good, volumes are good, packouts are good, so from the supply side there’s not really any issues. We can't pinpoint the reasons," he said.
Unlike the other categories, peach exports are now expected to see a year-on-year decline of one or two percentage points, against the earlier forecast indicating a possible 4% rise.
In terms of markets the Middle East and the U.K. have each received 38% of shipments.
As for plums, volumes are now building toward the peak period that is due around week 8, and Du Preez said it had been a case of 'so far so good'.
"We have really good sugars, good quality, and slightly smaller fruit if we generalise as a country," he said.
Exports are now expected to increase 10% over last year, against pre-season estimates of 6%.
A big positive for this campaign is that the cultivars' peak volumes aren't overlapping, as has been the case in previous years. However, he said a late Italian deal of the Angelino plums had led to a challenging start for the early South African arrivals in Europe.
"The market seems to be a bit nervous and uncertain, but we will see what happens in the next week or two. Hopefully it will stabilise and settle down. As I said the supplies are much more coordinated than last year, and the sugars are good, so it should go well," he said.
Looking ahead at the rest of the nectarine and plum campaigns, Du Preez predicted a 'buoyant' market for the former as there were traditionally 'more options' from this time onward, and expressed optimism the plum market would stabilise in the coming weeks.
He said growers harvesting late varieties may have to be 'clever' with their water usage.
"Some production areas have got more than enough water, but other ones are running into the orange and red light in terms of water availability. We will see the season through, but it might become challenging at the end," he said.
As for expected planting trends for the four fruit categories in South Africa over the coming years, there is an equally mixed outlook.
"With apricots we will probably see a decline over the short to medium-term in hectares and volumes exported, mainly due to a lack of new cultivars that work in South Africa that have the right timing and the right specs," Du Preez said.
"With nectarines we will go into a consolidation phase, I would imagine. We will see the hectares stabilise, they have been growing for many years now. A lot of cultivars are being trialled - some of the work and some of them don’t.
"Then on peaches, seeing as it’s been such as tough season in terms of the market, I can’t imagine the peach hectares increasing anymore. I think that they will also stabilise at the current levels, but with plums we will probably see an increase in hectares, and that will probably carry on for the next two or three years."