Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

Early success with dragon fruit in the Western Cape

-

In need of a crop to boost his profits, Western Cape grower Louw de Wet began experiment­ing with dragon fruit. Despite initial production challenges, he was soon convinced he had found a winner. De Wet spoke to

Jeandré van der Walt about his production methods and the opportunit­ies he wants to explore with the fruit.

Louw de Wet joined the family farm Retreat near Robertson in the Western Cape in 2010 after completing his bachelor’s degree in agricultur­al administra­tion at Stellenbos­ch University. The business consists of four production units, of which 150ha are under permanent plantings. They produce apricots and peaches for the canning industry, wine grapes for two local wineries, quinces and pears for the export market, and citrus fruit.

“At that stage, some of our farming sections were no longer that profitable. We needed to start looking at new crops that would put us in a better position,” recalls De Wet.

They investigat­ed possibilit­ies such as almonds and blueberrie­s, and then in 2015, De Wet stumbled upon dragon fruit.

“I started researchin­g it, and then received a prophetic confirmati­on that gave me enough conviction to begin farming this fruit.”

ESTABLISHI­NG THE ORCHARDS

In January 2016, De Wet planted just under 50 dragon fruit cuttings in planting bags underneath a net structure behind his house. When the saplings grew too big, he transplant­ed them into larger containers.

In 2018, he laid out his mother block of 0,7ha, and then systematic­ally began adding more cuttings, initially procuring dragon fruit cuttings locally, but eventually importing plant material from the Philippine­s.

At first, he trained a few plants up single posts 3m apart in the row and with an inter-row spacing of 4m. Later, however, he converted to trellis-based T-bars and decreased in-row spacing to 1m. This resulted in a density of about 2 500 plants/ ha.

Today, he has approximat­ely 4ha under dragon fruit of different varieties.

‘THERE’S VERY LIMITED INFORMATIO­N ON LOCAL PRODUCTION, AND THE PUBLIC IS LARGELY UNAWARE OF THE FRUIT’S HEALTH BENEFITS’

According to De Wet, the planting process is simple, but soil preparatio­n is important.

“Dragon fruit is quite adaptable to different soil types, from sandy to loamy soil. But it doesn’t like clay soil.” Instead, he explains, it prefers well-drained soil, ideally with a high level of organic material.

“And the golden rule of dragon fruit is not to plant it too deep.”

The plants are adaptable to climatic conditions, but De Wet recommends that producers who farm in areas prone to frost or temperatur­es above 38°C steer clear of dragon fruit production.

“In areas with strong sunlight, you need to grow the crop under shade netting to prevent sunburn,” he advises.

Once the plant is in the soil, it is important to get vegetative growth going. Once this is achieved, the plant will start producing flower buds.

Dragon fruit plants start to bear fruit in three to four years, and a yield of between 15t/ha and 25t/ha is possible. However, many factors, such as the type of cultivar used, can influence yield size. He adds that the plant has a lifespan of between 15 and 20 years.

De Wet is currently in his third season, which begins in November when flowering starts and lasts six months. Harvesting commences in January and lasts until the end of May.

FARMING WITH NATURE

De Wet is committed to farming with nature rather than against it, and he prioritise­s soil health.

“It all starts with healthy soil that provides a thriving environmen­t for organisms. Healthy soil ensures a healthy root system, a healthy plant and, of course, healthy fruit.“

He explains that convention­al practices, such as spraying herbicides and using chemicals, have a negative effect on the soil and the organisms in it. For this reason, he prefers not to spray herbicides and to leave naturally occurring plants in his orchards. Unwanted plants are removed by hand.

“By leaving the selected plants, we create a beneficial environmen­t for millions of insects and microbial life forms.”

He adds that keeping the soil covered aids in minimising water loss, and he also uses wood chip mulch to cover the drip lines on top of the ridges to reduce evaporatio­n.

According to early indication­s, it would appear that dragon fruit’s water requiremen­t is significan­tly lower than that of wine grapes, a crop that itself does not have a very high water demand.

“It seems as if we can get by with between 2 000m3/ha/year and 5 000m3/ha/year of irrigated water,” he says.

At present, he applies foliar sprays and copper fungicides, and uses insecticid­es and chemicals only if he notices a dangerous pest or disease threat. Even then, he tries to avoid harsh compounds.

LACK OF LOCAL INFORMATIO­N

According to De Wet, one of his greatest challenges is to identify the best dragon fruit varieties in terms of taste, internal quality, production, pollinatio­n, shelf life and hardiness.

With more than 200 varieties available worldwide, this is no small task. He focuses mainly on growing varieties that produce the best flavour, such as Cosmic Charlie and Connie Mayer.

Another difficulty is the lack of a local industry body that can conduct trials and research.

“There’s very limited informatio­n on local production. I picked up most of my knowledge of dragon fruit online,” he says.

De Wet has joined a WhatsApp group of industry role players who exchange ideas with and offer advice to one other.

“The lack of knowledge and awareness among the local public about the dragon fruit’s characteri­stics and health benefits is another challenge,” he says.

As with growing any crop, dragon fruit presents its own set of demands. It can be highly labour-intensive, as some varieties have to be hand-pollinated, which increases labour costs. De Wet therefore prefers to grow varieties that are self- or cross-pollinated. Even with naturally pollinatin­g varieties, workers tending the plants need to be skilled.

MARKETING AND THE FUTURE

As most of his plants have not yet reached peak production, De Wet currently focuses on selling on the local market, specifical­ly the Western Cape.

“As my production increases, I’ll shift my focus to the rest of South Africa. Once

I produce sufficient volumes, I’d also like to export dragon fruit,” he says.

De Wet markets his dragon fruit under the brand name Firefruit and supplies restaurant­s, hotels, delis and direct buyers. “I even supplied dragon fruit to a film studio that shoots an internatio­nal series in South Africa.”

According to De Wet, maintainin­g a cold chain and limited handling of the fruit are very important, as the fruit must reach its final destinatio­n as soon as possible and with as little handling as possible. ”The more the fruit is handled, the less appealing it is. Also, if the cold chain is maintained, the fruit is not only fresh, but has a longer shelf life. ”

De Wet has his sights set on covering the entire value chain of dragon fruit.

“I want to cultivate plant material and possibly develop new varieties. I would also like to get plant breeder’s rights to specific varieties,” he explains.

He is keen to eventually produce valueadded products, such as frozen dragon fruit.

“I also want to experiment with freeze-drying the fruit to make, among other things, a powder, or fruity sweets. The industry in South Africa is still in its infancy, and so many opportunit­ies beckon.” Phone Louw de Wet on 079 501 7749, or email him at louwdewet@firefruit.co.za.

 ?? PHOTOS: LOUW DE WET ?? Louw de Wet started farming dragon fruit about five years ago on his family farm close to Robertson. In his earlier plantings, shown here, he used an in-row spacing of 3m and an inter-row spacing of 4m. ABOVE:
PHOTOS: LOUW DE WET Louw de Wet started farming dragon fruit about five years ago on his family farm close to Robertson. In his earlier plantings, shown here, he used an in-row spacing of 3m and an inter-row spacing of 4m. ABOVE:
 ??  ?? TOP: Louw de Wet is the sixth generation to work on his family‘s farm, Retreat. He grows several varieties of dragon fruit and has steadily increased the area under this crop to 4ha.
TOP: Louw de Wet is the sixth generation to work on his family‘s farm, Retreat. He grows several varieties of dragon fruit and has steadily increased the area under this crop to 4ha.
 ??  ?? MIDDLE: Naturally occurring plants are left to grow, which helps maintain a healthy insect population in the orchard. Undesired weeds are removed.
MIDDLE: Naturally occurring plants are left to grow, which helps maintain a healthy insect population in the orchard. Undesired weeds are removed.
 ??  ?? BOTTOM: De Wet increased planting density after a time, decreasing the in-row distance to 1m, but keeping the inter-row spacing at 4m.
BOTTOM: De Wet increased planting density after a time, decreasing the in-row distance to 1m, but keeping the inter-row spacing at 4m.
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? ABOVE: The farm‘s dragon fruit is marketed under the brand name FireFruit and supplied to restaurant­s, hotels, delis and direct buyers in the Western Cape.
ABOVE: The farm‘s dragon fruit is marketed under the brand name FireFruit and supplied to restaurant­s, hotels, delis and direct buyers in the Western Cape.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa