What holds South African fruit growers back? By Jorisna Bonthuys.
The demand for organic produce is increasing globally, but the supply does not seem to be growing at the same rate. Currently, organic farming is a niche activity, with only 1.4% of global agricultural land under organic production, of which just over 200 000 hectares are made up of temperate fruits. In South Africa, fewer than 100 hectares of temperate fruit orchards are certified as organic.
Hein Coetzee, chief operating officer at TopFruit, recently completed an MBA at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, focusing on this topic. His research supervisor was Dr Lize Barclay.
South African consumers buy organic produce primarily through either the four major retail chains or traditional farmers’ markets. From Coetzee’s discussions with these retailers, it was clear that there is a demand for organic fruit and vegetables, but that the supply is simply not there.
This led Coetzee to examine, on the one hand, key barriers to successful organic conversion among conventional producers, and on the other, motivational factors that are essential for conversion.
Surveying the scene
Coetzee conducted a survey to collect data for his analysis. The survey was a self-administered questionnaire that was distributed to 70 growers of conventionally grown deciduous fruit.
The questionnaire was completed anonymously, and asked about the challenges of both conventional and organic production, and the benefits of organic products. Gender, age, level of education, fruit-farming experience, farm size, management level, and the degree of ownership were included.
Respondents agreed that consumers are becoming more concerned about food safety, and about how food is produced. They also noted that conventional production can be vulnerable to periodic water shortages, and that it is not sustainable without the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
At the time of the study, none of the respondents were formally certified as organic. However, 67% indicated that they were applying some organic techniques. Most respondents felt that they were using sufficient environmentally safe production techniques, even though they were not formally certified organic.
Stumbling blocks and motivational factors
Local growers identified a lack of knowledge about organic fruit production as the most crucial stumbling block to organic conversion.
The lack of government support was given as the second-most significant barrier to adopting organic practices. This may indicate that growers feel they need some support and guidance from a larger entity, should they decide to convert. The three-year conversion period and the cumbersome certification process also made the top-five list of obstacles.
These results run counter to findings reported in the literature, which state that pest and disease risk is the most significant challenge facing growers when converting to organic production. Lower yields due to pest and disease risk was only rated sixth in this study.
Coetzee also found that older producers and producers from larger farms have a lower willingness to convert.
As a lack of motivation could also pose a barrier to conversion, Coetzee measured the importance of certain motivational factors to respondents.
The most important motivational factor for producers to convert to organic farming was the internal conviction that they need to farm more environment-friendly, and that they should conserve nature. This finding surprised Coetzee, who initially assumed that financial reward would be the main motivational factor for converting to organic farming.
““It seems that growers first need to believe in the principles of organic farming, before they tackle the technical compliance hurdle,” says Coetzee. “Without this conviction, on a personal level, other motivational factors will not be enough to ensure the successful conversion to producing fruit organically.”
Producers also indicated that the success stories of fellow growers who converted successfully were very important.
Although Coetzee cautions that results pertain only to the growers who responded to the survey, the study did provide certain key insights that could be used to initiate more organic production.
As a lack of knowledge and the need to learn novel practices were the most significant challenges identified by respondents, highlighting the increased demand for organic produce and subsequent financial reward will not get more producers to convert to organic production.
The results clearly indicate that organisations must start by making sure their producers see the need to start producing products in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way,” says Coetzee.
“Once this conviction is clearly embedded, they can start educating and informing producers about organic production and all the important facets thereof. If these two cornerstones — conviction and knowledge — are not firmly in place, there will be no successful, sustainable conversion to organic production. In short, this research indicates that the process of producing organic temperate fruit starts long before the first tree is planted.”
The research also suggests that producer organisations and the South African government must improve climate-change policies and make these changes visible. This will further boost the internal conviction that growers need to produce fruit more sustainably, and potentially lead to more organic conversion.
The government should also actively support organic production, for example through research funding and tax incentives. In addition, exporters must ensure that product demand is firmly in place, and that there will be a financial reward in producing organic products, says Coetzee.
“Once these two very important foundation blocks are laid down, the normal business model can be applied to get growers accredited, and to produce and sell organic products,” concludes Coetzee. “This foundational process can be long, but from the results, it is clear that if these stumbling blocks are not first removed, sustainable conversion to organic production will not be possible.”