Advancing the deciduous fruit industry

Hortgro has its roots in the Deciduous Fruit Board that was established in 1939 as a regulatory body to manage the industry.

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Hortgro has its roots in the Deciduous Fruit Board that was established in 1939 as a regulatory body to manage the industry. With the deregulation of agriculture in 1997, it morphed into the Deciduous Fruit Producers’ Trust and later became known as Hortgro.
Hortgro is a levy-funded industry body servicing primarily its main members, stone fruit, and apple and pear producers, as well as other horticultural groups. The industry has faced many challenges in recent times, with a lengthy drought, high export tariffs to key markets, a range of technical barriers to trade requiring scientifically based protocols and policy uncertainties impacting negatively on investor confidence, making Hortgro an essential partner to navigate these choppy waters.

Hortgro is led by the dynamic Executive Director, Anton Rabe, who has farming in his blood, having grown up on a farm in Philippi, near Cape Town, in his formative years before moving to Stellenbosch University for his higher education, en route to his MBA and being appointed as the General Manager of the Deciduous Fruit Producers’ Trust, which was the forerunner of Hortgro as it is known today.

What are Hortgro’s main functions?

If you try to define it for people who are not familiar with the industry, our main functions are those that an individual grower or a commercial role player, and especially our emerging growers, cannot do on their own. They are the things that need to be done collectively like research, plant improvement, industry information, market access, market development and addressing transformation relating to economic development, skills development and training. We’ve got a bursary scheme and general industry involvement in various organised agricultural structures, communicating with stakeholders and informing them on what’s going on in the industry. We’ve got a fairly diverse stakeholder grouping in and around the industry, which includes the media, government officials, politicians, as well as the general public, however, within the industry, our primary clients are our growers.

Are you seeing more of a diversification of crops as international tastes develop and people experience different deciduous fruits, together with changing weather patterns?

Yes, absolutely, we see diversification and the use of new technology—the last couple of years haven’t been fun, due to the drought in many of our production regions, and as we sit here today, some of our production regions still haven’t received enough winter rain. So, climate change is a reality and we are adapting to that using new technology, new production practices, climate-adapted plant material and cultivars. Additionally, some of the new super fruits are under nets or a shade tunnel, which effectively manage both the climate and ensure better water efficiencies. W

e think that will continue to happen, where the economic value of water and the economic value of land will determine the use of that land. We see the wine industry under pressure; we see some of the wine hectares being transformed into stone fruits, citrus and even some of our higher value apple cultivars. Change, as they say, is the only constant.

What sort of relationship does Hortgro have with leading universities like Stellenbosch to push research and development?

We have a relationship not just with Stellenbosch, but also with some of the other universities such as the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the University of Cape Town (UCT) and even the Pretoria University of Horticulture and Agricultural Economics. We also have close relationships with Elsenburg, some of the colleges, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Wellington and agricultural schools. Our relationships are based on ensuring we get the right human capacity into our sector and that, in itself, remains a challenge because when people talk about agriculture, they think of farming and they think of difficult, sweaty work in hot conditions.

It is difficult work, but we’ve got new technology and production practices. We need a whole range of skills as well as marketers, doctors and educators in our industry, not just horticulturists, spoil scientists or entomologists.

In terms of transformation, are we seeing more representation in the agricultural sector? How can this be improved?

There is transformation—making sure we change the face and profile of our industry. It is one of our main objectives. At this stage, about 8% of our production is in previously disadvantaged individuals’ (PDI) hands in some form or another. However, being a long-term, highly capital-intensive, highly technology-intensive agriculture is not as easy as some of the cash crops might be. Even some of our long-standing commercial growers are finding it difficult to survive. We see consolidation taking place, bigger units, economies of size—because, ultimately, international trade is not concerned where the apple comes from, as long as it complies with their quality requirements, food safety, environmental issues, ethical compliance issues and so on.

I always try to term transformation in three stages. There’s the production focus—making sure that orchards, packing houses and post-harvest are well taken care of because that’s the base on which the industry is built. That’s the supply side, but equally important is the demand side where the markets, trade issues, market access, market development and protocols are addressed—enabling our growers to continue exporting to some very tricky markets and accessing new markets. And then, it’s important to know what’s going on, trend-wise, with the consumers’ taste preferences and how things will look in 10, 15 years—we need to plan and address those issues today or else we will miss the proverbial boat.

Land distribution is obviously in the news at the moment, how can we navigate those waters in a sustainable way that does not affect food security?

The antics on the left and right ends of the political spectrum are not making things easier, but I believe the silent majority in the middle will find the solutions. We are very much part of those discussions on a strategic, one-on-one level. We say that a legal process needs to be followed, it cannot be a knee-jerk reaction, and people should understand the nature of the agri-business. It is not just the land issue. In our case, the value of the agri-business on the land is about 90% of the value of the entity—the land is about 10% of the value of the entity. We support a structured, meaningful process within the parameters of the constitution and legislation without disrupting investor confidence.

We do see some people (investors) lifting their foot from the accelerator, they’re just waiting momentarily to see how things are going to be developed. If we establish an orchard, it’s R500 000/600 000 a hectare, it’s planted for 25 years and you need certainty over that period. We understand the need for land reform, we agree it’s been too slow and we, as a sector and private role players, need to make sure that sense prevails and that we can, in fact, change the face of our industry and the role players in our value chain—not just on a production level—so that the wealth and the benefit of our industry is spread wide.

If you look at agriculture in general, are we still only touching the surface of our potential in South Africa?

Water is a restricting factor and what’s frustrating is that there are many initiatives driven by the private sector up to a certain point, which then require a water permit or a water license for a specific initiative or venture, and then it just doesn’t happen.

The fact that the Brandvlei and Clanwilliam Dams’ walls haven’t been raised as yet is criminal neglect and failure to the rural communities. The water now runs into the sea and we’re going to have drier and wetter spells again—when the water is there, we must be able to dam it. So, the water policy and the size of dams, both public and private, need to be looked at.

How can we best leverage our BRICS trading partnership to promote more exports?

In a trade meeting a few months ago, I mentioned that some of these trade issues—the deciduous industry works very closely with our colleagues in the table grape industry, citrus and sub-tropical industries because we are all export-driven industries with the same challenges, so we try to work together—but I’m afraid to say that BRICS itself has meant nothing for the fruit exporting industry to date. It may have meant something to some of the other sectors, but certainly not for the fruit exporting industry yet.

If you just take Brazil, it’s a bit of a problem in the sense that they produce very much the same things as we do, they’ve got a long production cycle, and it overlaps with ours but Russia, India and China suit our exports better being counter-seasonal, but they’ve got high tariffs and no preferential trade agreements for our products have been developed to date. Such agreements would be very helpful to create a new demand for our products, which will have a pull effect for new plantings and which will address transformation directly.

In terms of leadership, what’s your key philosophy and how do you get the best out of your staff?

My personal philosophy is to create space for competent people, to put competent people in place and allow them the room to make mistakes, as long as they don’t make the same mistake twice.

I’m not a micro-manager. I believe people should take responsibility for their own line management, I don’t believe in a hierarchy type of leadership structure. Good manners and respect for your colleagues are paramount to me. Values like respect, transparency, integrity and honesty are also crucial elements. 

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