How the Dutoit Agri is navigating challenges to ensure uninterrupted Apple production
Delicious apples really are a gift from nature, a crisp, juicy taste experience whether enjoyed as a snack or used as part of a hearty salad or dessert.
But how does this crunchy nutritious creation reach our fruit bowl, especially with all the weather and power challenges facing farmers?
According to Gysbert du Toit, Marketing Director at the Dutoit, increasing erratic weather patterns severely impact the management of apples. “Extremes in heat, rainfall, and hail have become the new normal,” he says, adding that a spike in temperature even if only for a day, can cause fruit to get sunburnt. Drought is another constant threat. “The lack of consistent power inhibits our ability to apply irrigation where needed most effectively,” he says.
The current energy crisis has also affected the apple production process, not only from a cost perspective at farms and packing facilities but also when it comes to human capital. “On the farm side, the worst has been during the summer months when the daily irrigation cycles could not be completed within normal working hours, or even within daylight hours, and production staff had to work through the night to start pumps to irrigate,” Du Toit says.
Another challenge has been to cool down the apples after harvest, in order to maintain the shelf life of the fruit. “When there is no electricity, the cold rooms do not have the capacity to chill fruit within the required time, and the packhouses cannot run as normal”. Dutoit Agri was one of the first implementors of innovative new cold storage technologies including dynamically controlled atmosphere storage of fruit to maintain fruit quality. Because apple production must go on at Dutoit, generators have been fitted at the farms and packhouses at an enormous cost.
Dutoit produces 200 000 tons of fruit in total annually, 80% of which is apples, which equates to over 900 million apples per year. As a leading South African producer and distributor of superior fruit and vegetables, Dutoit is dealing with these ongoing challenges while trying to keep their produce affordable to the consumer.
“The cost to produce, pack and transport fruit is exposed to the same inflation as all other sectors. Dutoit is constantly re-evaluating what we do to be more efficient, smarter and precise,” continues du Toit. He cites precision fertilisation as one effective way of reducing the variability within an orchard. This saves on application rates, which not only has a cost-saving implication, but also a positive effect on the environment.
Apples undergo various quality checks to ensure that delicious nutritious apples reach our kitchen counters. These include pre-harvest nutrient analysis samples of leaf, soil and fruit; fruit quality checks on the farm during harvest and at the pack shed prior to and during packing, as well as final quality control at load out. Fruit held in storage is also regularly sampled to ensure the best quality. These fruit quality checks include but are not limited to, sugar content and firmness of the fruit; colouration of the fruit; size; weight, and any other parameter that could impact on fruit quality.
“Research and development are crucial to the sustainability of the Dutoit business. To become more effective, we need to work smarter, and the only way to do that, is to learn more and to do better!” says Du Toit. “For example, if we grow smaller trees at higher densities, we can not only increase our production of apples per hectare, but we can pick more from the ground which means our labour is more effective. We can also more easily cover the orchard with nets which decreases the incidence of sunburnt fruit and the amount of irrigation water we need to apply, and also protects the orchard from hail. We can do more with less,” he says.
Dutoit is actively engaged with Hortgro Science which coordinates industry research.
“It is our mission to produce, pack, market, and distribute quality fresh produce in a sustainable manner, to the satisfaction of our clients and other stakeholders. By forging long-term relationships with our end buyers and consumers, we keep the handling chain as short as possible, enabling us to ensure fruit quality at a price the end consumer can afford,” Du Toit says.