There has been an almost 50 percent drop in the volume of table grapes harvested in the Hex River Valley so far this season.

However, industry sources say that the fall-off in volumes has not had an adverse impact on the industry’s reputation among its international customers because it is so early in the season.

While there is some dispute over the precise cause of the drop, with some attributing part of the reduction to the season being late, many say that this month’s protest action on fruit farms in the Western Cape is largely to blame.

“The [Hex River Valley] season started late this year but the main issue is that the packing tempo is just not there,” Johan van Niekerk, the chairman of the SA Table Grape Industry (Sati), told Business Report yesterday.

Van Niekerk said there was little doubt that the protest action had meant that none of the farmers were able to harvest at full capacity. He said there was some scope for farmers to delay picking the grapes but this was limited to about a week, after which the fruit would be too ripe.

“We will only be able to see at the end of the season how much of the fruit was lost.”

At this stage the damage to the industry’s international markets was limited, he noted. “The bigger damage is to the farmer because with every week of delay the price drops.”

Louis Kriel, the chief executive of Capespan, which is one of the largest fruit export agents in the country, said: “There’s definitely been a slower pace of packing but it would be misleading to attribute the 50 percent drop to the protest action.”

He said that the reduction in harvesting volumes did mean that there was a shortage of produce for export and this would have an impact on short-term relationships with customers, but he stressed that the country had established a reputation for quality product and reliable service over decades.

“You don’t destroy that sort of long-term relationship because of short-term difficulties. If it continued, customers would be concerned.

“This is a very competitive international industry and other countries, such as Chile, will try to take advantage of any difficulties we have,” he said.

Kriel added that he remained positive about the future of agriculture and believed that climate and know-how gave the country a strong advantage.

“We need to resolve this labour issue, as well as the steep increase in input costs, but I don’t think any of them will change the positive outlook for the industry.”

Late last week Sati released its latest newsletter, which revealed that in the Hex River Valley the intake of table grapes up to the second week of the current season was 580 073 cartons of 4.5kg.

This compares with 1 075 356 cartons of 4.5kg for the same period last year. – Ann Crotty