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Planting, Propagating, & Promoting Pecans in South Africa

Looking out at the walkway to the Vaalharts Dam, the first part of the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme

Finished in 1938, Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme begins at the Vaalharts Storage Weir an hour outside of Kimberley, South Africa. The dam feeds water into canals that line roads and branch down neighborhood streets. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

Almost an hour’s drive outside of Kimberley, South Africa, the Vaalharts Storage Weir diverts water from the Vaal River and feeds it into the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme. Here marks the start of South Africa’s entire pecan industry. Without the Valhaarts Irrigation Scheme and this dam, the South African pecan industry wouldn’t exist as we currently know it.

“It is what we have. There isn’t anything else we can use,” said Hardus du Toit, the Senior Technical Officer of the South African Pecan Nut Producers’ Association, as we looked out at the Vaalharts Dam on a bright morning in mid-November 2019. “That dam supplies 37,000 hectares (about 91,428 acres) of irrigation with water. All the towns get their drinking water out of this. Each town has its own purification system. And where the canals end, we pump the water from Vryburg [­a town about an hour north of the Vaalharts Storage Weir.]”

Before taking us deeper into South Africa’s largest production region, Hardus du Toit, our official guide to the South African p­ecan industry, brought us to its very beginning. Pecan South’s publisher, Blair Krebs, and I stared out over the expanse of the Vaalharts Dam and the start of this gravity-fed Irrigation Scheme.

Providing water to the heart of South Africa’s pecan production, the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme was dug by hand in the 1930s and finished in 1938. The system began as an initiative by the South African government to give men work after the Great Depression. Workers dug the dams and canals with shovels and picks to channel the Vaal River and provide water to the entire Vaalharts Valley, between the confluence of the Vaal and Harts Rivers. To achieve this gravity-fed scheme, laborers dug up to 20 meters (66 feet) deep in some parts.

Through their efforts, the system allowed farmers to cultivate the Vaalharts Valley and establish an industry. Today, around half of the hectares in Vaalharts has been planted with pecans.

As researchers predicted in the early 1970s, the South African pecan industry moved west over the years. From its origins in Natal and Mpumalanga, the industry slowly transitioned into the Northern Cape, where now approximately 23,000 hectares (79,073 acres) of pecan trees out of the country’s total 40,000 hectares (98,842 acres) grow.

South Africa is the third largest pecan producer in the world. Just as growers in Mexico and the United States plant more trees and invest, South African pecan producers see a bright future in pecans and the industry continues to flourish.

Through the data gathered by a third-party consultancy, the American Pecan Council estimated that South Africa would produce around 145 million pounds by 2027, comprising more than 10 percent of the world supply. This projected growth aligns with the 529 percent increase in South Africa’s pecan production from 2006 to 2018. 

Last month we explored the history of the South African pecan industry. With roots back in the late 1800s, this industry has exhibited steady growth over the years, but since China entered the market, that steady growth skyrocketed. Over the last decade, more and more farmers started seriously planting pecan trees with hopes that they’ll get a piece of that success. 

But planting is just the first step. Although the South African pecan industry can trace its roots back to the late 19th century, it is still fairly young. The industry continues to establish itself. Much research remains needed for further development. And some new growers fail to realize just how long and expensive seven years are. Through the South African Pecan Nut Producers’ Association (SAPPA), which started in 2012, the nascent industry has begun to make progress toward expansion, but the path is long. When calculating future production, SAPPA estimates that only 60 percent of planted trees will come into production as poor management and marginal climatic conditions play a role in their success. Before they achieve this success, South African growers and processors must first confront numerous challenges, learn from their mistakes and research, and drive future growth.

Stefan Smith checks out one of his 14-year-old pecan trees on his farm near Hartswater. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

Stefan Smith is one of the pecan farmers that depends on the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme. Without it, his grandfather would never have been able to start farming near Hartswater. After World War II, South Africa rented land to soldiers like Smith’s grandfather so that they could begin to make a livelihood at home through farming. After debushing the land, leveling the earth, and preparing the soil for crops, Smith’s grandfather initiated his family’s legacy with row crops.

A third-generation farmer, Smith switched his family’s 25-hectare farm (62 acres) over to pecans around fourteen years ago. Like many other growers throughout the country, Smith approached nurserymen with a request for ‘Wichita,’ ‘Western Schley,’ and ‘Choctaw’ but ended up with other varieties thrown into the mix.

Micro-sprinklers water Stefan Smith’s oldest pecan trees on a cloudy November morning. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

“We have such a big demand here [for pecan trees]. You bought what you could get otherwise you couldn’t get any,” Smith recalled.

Smith’s experience with nurseries is common throughout South Africa, and producers across the Northern Cape shared similar stories.

“We were very limited on varieties at that stage,” Dries DavenHague, a pecan farmer in Vaalharts, explained. “I ordered ‘Choctaw’ and ‘Wichita,’ and they sent me ‘Barton’ and ‘Ukulinga.’ I let the guy at the station know, ‘Listen, you made a mistake. You sent me the wrong varieties.’ And he said, ‘If you don’t want it, send it back. I’ve got plenty of other people that need it.’ So that’s why I’ve two rows of ‘Ukulinga,’ then one ‘Pawnee’ and two that used to have ‘Barton’ and are now ‘Pawnee.’”

In his orchards, DavenHague also has ‘Western Schley,’ ‘Mahan,’ ‘Mohawk,’ and ‘Navaho.’

Another pecan grower and nurseryman within the valley, Jannie Smit specified that he has the popular varieties’ Wichita,’ ‘Navaho,’ and ‘Choctaw’ with a few other cultivars mixed in.

“You know, these guys with the nurseries, they’ll sell you anything,” Smit joked.

To combat this issue, many growers in South Africa produce their own trees for planting. By having a nursery, these producers can control quality, avoid increased prices for young trees, adapt their trees to their conditions, and know what they’re planting.

Additionally, the South African Pecan Nut Producers’ Association (SAPPA) has created minimum quality standards and guidelines for nurseries that members must follow. Although cultivar purity is not currently part of those standards, SAPPA has partnered with the USDA-ARS Pecan Breeding Program to explore opportunities for using genetics to verify cultivars.

Even with unintended diversity of cultivars throughout the Northern Cape province, growers, for the most part, rely on the same three varieties: ‘Wichita,’ ‘Choctaw,’ and ‘Navaho.’ Du Toit said that ‘Choctaw’ is very popular at the moment and makes up 20 to 30 percent of new plantings in Vaalharts.

China’s interest in pecans acted as the first catalyst to the increased plantings, but the financial opportunity that followed proved to be the most significant stimulus. Farmers who struggled to make a living off traditional row crops turned to permanent crops as a solution to their financial woes.

“The economy of things has changed. When we came here 20 years ago, you could make a living off a 20-hectare farm, but now you need at least 100 hectares (247 acres) of cash crop to make the same amount from back then,” du Toit explained. “Now the option is to switch to a permanent crop. This is a big reason why pecans have grown so much.”

Looking to make a stable living, farmers in the Northern Cape slowly began to switch over to growing pecan trees. These growers in the West started small. They planted five hectares (about 12 acres), made some money, and then planted a bit more. With limited land, growers in Vaalharts then and today plant what they can.

Stefan Smith’s youngest trees—going on four years old—reside on his last bit of property. In this final planting, Smith broke away from the typical spacing of 10-by-10 meters (32-by-32 feet) and opted for a tighter fit of 10-by-8 meters (32-by-26 feet). He has followed in the footsteps of other growers who experiment with close spacing to fit as many trees on their land as possible.

Smith’s decision to try tighter spacing and later remove trees reflects the current land situation in the Vaalharts Valley.

“I haven’t got more soil to plant in, and it’s very expensive in Vaalharts for me to go and buy that guy’s farm down the road,” Smith said. “One, he won’t sell anyway because he’s got a son that’s 32 or 33 years old who will take over, and two, it’s impossible now to buy.”

Du Toit added that young people interested in agriculture would never be able to purchase land in this region. The cost of buying property and then purchasing equipment is just too high; instead, young farmers enter through familial connections.

Southwest in the Northern Cape province, land is more easily bought. Around the town of Douglas at the confluence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers, farmers have access to more land and are therefore planting more trees on more acreage. Unlike in the Vaalharts Valley, this area only began being farmed within the last 30 to 40 years and is still coming into development with many young trees and newer plantings. The first big planting of pecans around Douglas happened at the same time as those in Vaalharts, but while Vaalharts took off aggressively, growers in this region started slowly and are just now picking up speed. This slow start is due to the fact that it has been more profitable for farmers to continue with current crops, such as barley, wheat, onions, and potatoes.

Ernie Steinberg is one Douglas farmer who saw a financial opportunity in pecans and decided to enter the industry. With 1,800 hectares (4,448 acres) of land, Steinberg began planting pecans in 2015 and currently has 400 hectares (988 acres) of pecans planted. According to Steinberg’s foreman Hanco Fourie, the plan is to have 600 hectares (1482 acres) and keep the rest of the land for onions, wheat, and other crops. They grow ‘Wichita,’ ‘Navaho,’ ‘Pawnee,’ and ‘Choctaw’ spaced 10 by 3.5 meters (32 by 11.5 feet) with a goal to end up at 10 by 7.5 meters (32 by 25 feet). They get new trees from their nursery.

Like other producers around Douglas, Steinberg started by planting the corners of his land and then slowly moving in and planting bigger blocks of trees. This technique enables farmers to continue to make money on row crops and to use their existing center pivot irrigation system to water their young trees.

A center pivot irrigation system stretches across rows of young pecan trees and waters them in Douglas, South Africa.

Following a practice common among South African pecan growers, Ernie Steinberg uses his center pivot to water his young pecan trees on his orchard in Douglas, Northern Cape, South Africa. He will switch over to mini-Wobblers once his trees get too tall for the center pivot. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

“You can farm this center pivot fully for the next three to four years, and then they’ll switch over fully to micro sprinklers or something similar,” du Toit said.

At Steinberg’s orchard, the plan is to switch to mini-Wobblers, a popular form of irrigation in South Africa, because it allows for nice delivery with low pressure. Du Toit added the other advantage is that they make a big droplet, so even if the wind is strong, growers won’t have a fine spray that’s blown away.

According to du Toit, many farmers in Douglas bought the land as a cattle farm and then got water rights separately. In this part of the Northern Cape, the Orange River flows into a reservoir that then pumps water into a canal that flows upstream and into the Vaal River, where the Douglas Dam sits. Farmers must then pump water up from the river and the Douglas Weir because the system is not gravity-fed like the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme.

Farmers who were able to afford water rights were the ones who could switch over to pecans. While there is enough soil to plant many more pecans trees, the number of water rights is limited and the cost of pumping high.

Although growers in the Vaalharts Valley and around Douglas receive their water differently, they share an obstacle to their irrigation: pollution.

Because the water quality from the Vaal River is so poor, farmers struggle to use the water for growing purposes. Those in Hartswater and other parts of the Vaalharts Valley rely on the Irrigation Scheme to dilute the water to lessen the salt. In Douglas growers opt to pump from the canal connected to the Douglas Weir, rather than from the Vaal.

Though the water quality does not meet pecan trees’ needs, producers must rely on it. The Vaalharts Valley and the area around Douglas historically received at most 400 millimeters (about 16 inches) of rainfall per year, but the entire Northern Cape has been in a drought for eight years, going on nine. In January, the South African government declared the province a disaster area.

“Some of those years we didn’t even receive 200 millimeters (8 inches),” du Toit said, referring to the Vaalharts Valley. “If it wasn’t for this river, we wouldn’t have pecans.”

In addition to irrigation, growers throughout South Africa have created management practices that best suit their needs and their industry.

Hedging has become a staple practice for South African pecan growers to prevent crowding and increase sunlight penetration. More growers have begun to hedge over the last few years, and each one has created their own system that typically entails alternating sides of the trees every year or so. As the years pass, these producers learn more about their trees and adjust their hedging system as needed.

Additionally, many producers grow cover crops or leave as much organic matter on their orchard floor as possible. Those growers in Vaalharts, like Stefan Smith and Jannie Smit, use this practice to give the soil more nutrients, but growers in Douglas cover has a different purpose.

An employee at Ernie Steinberg’s farm drives a tractor with modified rollers between rows of 5-year-old trees. To combat the sandy soil on his orchard, Steinberg mulches, adds cover crops, and allows native vegetation to flourish. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

Ernie Steinberg’s orchard in Douglas is burdened by sandy soil. The soil is so sandy that walking through the orchard feels much like trudging across dunes at a beach. Hanco Fourie, the foreman at Steinberg’s farm, said that they use all the cover—mulching, cover crops, native vegetation—they can to transform the soil around the trees. Getting the soil where it needs to be biology-wise continues to be one of this orchard’s greatest challenges. The cover not only brings more biodiversity to the soil, but it also prevents erosion from the strong winds and keeps the blazing temperatures down in the orchard. This operation further adapted to the challenge of sandy soil by adding rollers to their tractors so that equipment can more easily navigate through the orchard.

Zinc deficiency proves to be another challenge for producers throughout the Northern Cape. Although some farmers may have little to no struggle with their trees drawing zinc up from their soil, others in parts of Vaalharts and Douglas constantly battle against low zinc.

Jannie Smit, for instance, has one orchard in Vaalharts that often exhibits symptoms of zinc deficiency, while right across the way, his other farm shows no problems at all. Smit said that the zinc-deficient pecan orchard used to be a citrus orchard, which he believes may have depleted the soil.

SAPPA’s Senior Technical Officer, Hardus du Toit, said this problem is also common for farmers along the Orange River, where the tree’s struggle to absorb zinc, even if it is there.

“You’re taking pecans and planting them in soils that are severely low in zinc to start off with. So in all the new orchards, you’ll see almost throughout the entire orchard the zinc deficiency is starting to come in quite badly,” du Toit added.

To combat zinc deficiency, producers spray their trees but that comes with its own set of challenges.

“Spraying in general in South Africa is a bit difficult because of our climate, which is so arid, but then we also do not have recommendations established. If you go to the fruiting or grape industry, they’ve got a nice norm set up as to how much water you need to actually wet a big size tree or vineyard,” du Toit explained. “SAPPA is now busy with a project to establish those types of things as well to help the farmers spray better.”

Some producers have learned to adjust their spraying schedules by spraying before dawn when its cooler, there’s less wind and low humidity, and the leaves have time to absorb the droplets. Others choose to avoid the issue with spraying altogether and apply zinc directly to the soil.

As for pests and wildlife, South African growers deal with a range of species, some that their American counterparts combat and others that are completely different. Growers in the eastern part of South Africa like Ivan Otto near Modimolle, Limpopo, combat more problems with wildlife than their counterparts in the Northern Cape, who established orchards in an area that has been cultivated for more than 80 years. For instance, zebras often wander through Ivan Otto’s farm. Though they do not eat the nuts or the leaves, they sometimes trample young trees.

In contrast, Hardus du Toit said his family farms had problems with kudu, a species of antelope, that rub against and break trees. Kudu can clear a 5-foot fence from a standing start; du Toit has erected a 2.5-meter (about 8 feet) fence around his trees, and he still has found kudu in his orchard from time to time.

The Chacma baboon, or Cape baboon, acts as another nuisance that growers—and South Africans in general—must endure. Due to habitat loss and predation, baboons often live near or invade human settlements. Across South Africa, troops have figured out ways around electrical fences, ripped apart irrigation sprinklers, broke into cars, overturned trash cans, and foraged in orchards.

Crows have also recently become a problem for some growers. At Hardus du Toit’s family farm in Vaalharts, crows have moved in over the last couple of seasons. Du Toit said this last season he saw murders of 200 to 300 crows swarm his orchard. The South African Pecan Nut Producers’ Association (SAPPA) has begun to talk with American crow canon companies to try and assist growers in combating this problem, but the U.S. canons may not work on South African crows.

Luckily for these growers, pests remain low on their list of management challenges. Currently, the South African pecan industry has no insecticide spraying program in place.

One potential pest, the polyphagous shot hole borer, has proved disastrous for ornamental trees in Johannesburg and Pretoria but has not proved to be an issue for Stefan Smith, who first discovered this invasive insect in his orchard in 2016. For now, Smith in partnership with SAPPA continues to monitor the polyphagous shot hole borer with pheromone traps.

Another potential pest the yellow aphid, which is familiar to growers in the United States, has also not caused issues for growers in South Africa. Previous research projects revealed that trees treated with an insecticide regimen during a heavy aphid infestation showed no difference than untreated trees.

“The research pointed out that beneficials are of such high numbers that as soon as we start spraying, we’re going to mess that up. We don’t have to now bring back the good guys. We have them; we just have to keep them,” du Toit explained. “We’ve got a strong focus on getting information to the guys to say, ‘Listen, it’s not necessary to go in and spray.’”

Du Toit added that the South African industry also does not have pest threshold values established that could guide insecticide recommendations.

Nurseryman and grower Jannie Smit in Vaalharts also said that the cost to apply the insecticide currently outweighs the cost of insect damage. Therefore, spraying is not a common practice, and the industry focuses instead on prevention.

South African growers have heard the American pecan industry’s challenges with pecan weevil and the black aphid and fear that those pests could make their way to their country.

The Board of Directors and staff for the South African Pecan Nut Processors’ Association stand for a group photo on the second day of their 2019 General Annual Meeting and Information Day on Nov. 16, 2019, in Modimolle, Limpopo. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

At the 2019 SAPPA Annual General Meeting, Dr. Justin Hatting gave an update on insect monitoring and bio-control development. In his talk, he advised attendees to look out for weevil. Although this pest has not been found in South Africa, Hatting said that it could be and that the industry must continue to take preemptive action.

“We try to emphasize that all these groups that go over and visit [the U.S.] mustn’t come back with any material, any material. It isn’t worthwhile,” Dries DavenHague, a pecan grower in Vaalharts and SAPPA member, said.

Disease at varying levels is another management concern for South African producers. Pecan producers in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and other parts of northeastern South Africa tend to have more disease than those in the Northern Cape province. Pecans in the Northeast grow in an almost tropical climate and experience more humidity. This part of the country used to hold the majority of South Africa’s pecan production; pecan trees were originally propagated there because this region’s climate mirrors that of the southeastern United States. Now, macadamia nuts have taken over entirely as the climate suits them perfectly. South Africa is the largest producer of macadamias in the world and produces over 100 million pounds a year.

Pecan growers in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo currently fight against scab, but the pathogen infecting their nuts is a different one than that found in the United States.

At SAPPA’s 2019 Annual General Meeting, Nicola Theron—a student researching plant pathogens under Dr. Gert Marais at the University of the Free State—presented on Cladosporium cladosporioides. Cladosporium cladosporioides is the fungus that causes scab in South Africa, while in the U.S. neofusicoccum causes this disease. Theron confirmed that it mainly affects growers in the northeastern parts of the country, though it has been found in the North West and Northern Cape provinces as a pathogen.

Theron further specified that scab doesn’t occur late in the season unless pink mold is present; additionally, scab in South Africa does not impact the kernel itself, which again is different than in the U.S.

She recommended good spacing, ventilation, and preventative fungicide treatments.

Though they do not have to counteract scab, growers in the Northern Cape add preventative fungicide spraying to their foliar feedings and spraying programs. Du Toit clarified that most fungal and disease issues in South Africa link back to stress and other underlying problems, such as lack of water or fertilizer mismanagement.

A bit more information about the South African pecan variety, 'Ukulinga'.

‘Wichita’ and ‘Ukulinga’ are the known scab-resistant cultivars in South Africa, but ‘Elliott,’ ‘Cape Fear,’ ‘Barton,’ and ‘Choctaw’ also appear to do well in scab areas.

The South African pecan industry continues to search for more scab-resistant cultivars, but unlike the American industry, it does not have access to new varieties developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of Xylella fastidiosa. Instead, South African producers through SAPPA have started looking into breeding new cultivars domestically and testing the ones they have.

SAPPA has partnered with several growers in trials on the last cultivars imported from the USDA three years ago. These cultivars include ‘Barton,’ ‘Apache,’ ‘Caddo,’ ‘Curtis,’ ‘Oconee, ‘Nacono,’ ‘Giles,’ and ‘Hopi’ among a couple of others.

“We don’t have any knowledge as to how they would perform anyway, so those are now planted in 22 sites all over South Africa in different regions,” du Toit said.

Research and education remain the South African industry’s greatest tasks. As a relatively new industry, South African growers and processors are encountering problems and discovering practices that are unique to their climate, country, and situation. The industry continues to exist in a period of experimentation and learning.

For instance, the industry has begun to see a problem with pollination. The 2019 crop was estimated to be between 47,040,000 to 56,000,000 pounds but turned out to be around 37,856,000 pounds. SAPPA linked this drop in yield to prolonged cold weather during flowering stage and scorching temperatures during nut fill paired with widespread drought and hail.

The industry also speculated that this decrease was caused by a pollination problem where ‘Navaho’ flowered earlier and ‘Wichita’ later. Growers with more varieties in their orchards didn’t see a significant drop in production, but those who followed nursery recommendations and planted 80 percent ‘Wichita’ and 20 percent ‘Navaho’ did.

Du Toit explained that in certain production areas the ‘Navaho’ male flowers are so early that they shed their pollen before the first female flowers on the ‘Wichita’ are ready to be pollinated.

“You’ve missed that goal completely, so then you’ve got no cross-pollination,” he added. “So those 20 or 30 odd trees in the orchard helps when there’s a gap during pollination, which you would otherwise not have if the nursery guy actually gave you what you ordered.”

Confronting new challenges like this one and working to improve the industry, SAPPA continues to spend most of its budget to fund research at local universities and to lead trials for the benefit of the local industry. Ongoing projects include water usage, pecan disease in South Africa, and pest bio-control development.

Showing interest in trying new techniques and tools, producers throughout the Northern Cape currently experiment with tight spacing and other production techniques as they look for better management practices.

One grower within Vaalharts has taken tight spacing even further by planting a trial orchard that is 4 by 3 meters (approximately 13 by 10 feet). Initially a stone fruit farmer, this producer is trying a few different things—trellises, growth hormones, and hand pruning—to discover what happens with the pecan trees on his 1.3 hectares (3.2 acres). Du Toit shared that this producer believes he can make as much money as someone with traditionally spaced plantings even if his trees are not producing at their highest level because this producer simply has more trees.

Other growers throughout South Africa have also been experimenting with registered growth regulators, like Cultar. These regulators inhibit tree growth and limit its size. Compared to other trees, treated pecan trees appear stouter with shorter shoots and bigger, greener leaves bunched tight together. When viewing some trees treated with growth regulators, Blair Krebs, Pecan South publisher, compared their appearance to peach trees.

Like several growers throughout the Northern Cape, Hardus du Toit has treated two rows of ‘Ukulinga’ on his family farm with growth regulators to test how the chemicals would affect his trees.

“One row was 7 years old and the other row was between 28 and 30 years old. We just did those two rows, and we said we wouldn’t do it again because we don’t like how the trees react,” du Toit explained, while examining treated trees on his property. “We compared this ‘Ukulinga’ size-wise and kernel percentage-wise to the other row on the other side of the farm, and these were 3 percent lower kernel percentage than the ones on the other side that were not treated.”

Other growers using growth regulators like Cultar have found that each variety reacts differently; ‘Ukulinga’ reacts most severely while ‘Choctaw’ doesn’t seem to react at all.

As other South African growers continue to test growth inhibitors, du Toit said that he would advise growers against it. “It just doesn’t sit right with us,” he added.

SAPPA recommends that producers should not start using Cultar, or paclobutrazol, and should consider ending use. The association’s recommendation mirrors a movement among growers away from chemicals.

“You don’t want to get to a point where you’ve got a crop and you can’t sell it because of whatever you’ve put on that crop,” du Toit, SAPPA’s Senior Technical Officer, said.

Growing that crop of pecans requires more than a good management plan. Like any industry, the South African pecan industry must rely on skilled and unskilled labor. Finding reliable workers poses a challenge in and of itself.

“We haven’t got schooled labor. Many of these guys leave school in grade five or four, so we try and manage them or train them,” said Stefan Smith, a third-generation pecan farmer near Hartswater. “As soon as you’ve got a worker to do what you want him to do the way you want it, he decides after a month or two or three, ‘I’ve got enough money now; I don’t need to work.’ And he leaves you. He doesn’t tell you on Friday that he’s not coming back. He just doesn’t pitch up on Monday.”

Smith identified this challenge as an attitude problem and a lack of loyalty from local workers. He suggested that growers change their whole system of employment to a commission basis.

“I pay them either per row or per tree. When you finished with these 30 trees, I’ll give you that much, and then they start working. Otherwise, they get paid by the end of the week, so if they clean one tree or 90, it doesn’t matter,” Smith added.

This lack of support extends beyond one’s workers and to the government. The South African government continues to struggle with past corruption, election promises, and infrastructure.

“The big difference [between us and the U.S.] is that we’ve got no state support. None at all. So, all is from ourselves. We learn from each other and we learn a lot from the Americans, and we learn a little bit from the Australians,” Dries DavenHague explained.

The largest threat to the South African pecan industry at the moment is the government’s land expropriation without compensation plan, which is currently supported by the ruling party and headed to ratification this year. The non-compensatory plan would take land from current farm owners and return to displaced Black citizens who were forcibly removed during the apartheid regime.

During the most recent elections in 2017, current President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that he wouldn’t take any productive land into expropriation. Still, the amendment remains up in the air as political parties battle it out, and growers have expressed confusion over what qualifies as “productive.” In the meantime, the federal government redistributed some land that was already in its hands.

As the proverbial sword continues to hang over agriculture in South Africa, pecan growers have expressed differing outlooks.

“I personally don’t think it’ll ever happen,” du Toit said. “I farm as if there’s no tomorrow. There’s no problem getting funds from the bank. If the banking sector was really scared by this, they wouldn’t go and loan you more money to buy more land and equipment. If they start expropriating land, then where will [our] food come from?”

Another South African producer, Dries DavenHague, expressed more concern over the ongoing issue with land expropriation with compensation.

“It’s difficult to make decisions, to invest, to expand, to buy more land, to plant more orchards,” he said. “And I don’t know if these guys are thinking clearly about all of it, because we all are. Most land is in any case mortgaged to the banks, and if that land is just taken away, the whole financial system would fall to pieces. Also, work-wise, I employ 45 people. It’s a bit of a worry.”

Another ongoing issue for pecan farmers in South Africa is the state’s single electricity provider, Eskom. Eskom currently provides 95 percent of the power in South Africa. Eskom’s problems—outdated power plants, internal corruption, and overspending—make it difficult to operate a business and have seeped down into the municipality level. Many growers have turned to solar panels to provide their own electricity and ensure they can do business.

Even with all of these challenges, the South African pecan industry continues to look forward to a bright future. But to achieve this goal, industry members have to be all in. Without government or institutional support, they are the ones who have to raise funds, call for research, and push themselves further.

Plantings continue to pop up in the West as more and more farmers chase a financial boon, and South Africa’s five large and 28 small pecan processors continue to make connections and search for new market opportunities. But just because they plant pecan trees, doesn’t mean those trees will give a high yield.

“The common thread is the guys are planting in areas which are marginal for different reasons. Some guys jump into pecans because someone somewhere told him that there are buckets of money. So, he gets in five years and then realizes he doesn’t have enough money or water or something, so he has to let something go,” du Toit clarified. “I’d go so far as to say as out of every ten trees sold, only about five will reach full production. I think it’s just something about the reality of pecans that there are so many people jumping into it that don’t do well.”

The key for South Africa is to find new market opportunities for its pecans. With no established domestic market, the industry must rely on exports. Traditionally, 85 percent of South African pecan production is shipped inshell to China. Europe is another established market but opts for kernels, which can be an expensive process for some growers. South Africa currently has its sights on developing a market at home and breaking into Russia and India, potential emerging markets.

An infographic that gives a couple facts about South African pecan industry.

“The American pecan industry has a well-developed internal market, and I suppose if you don’t import from Mexico, you would have used up all of your nuts,” DavenHague said. “We don’t have that domestic market.”

Trying to establish more markets, SAPPA announced at its Annual General Meeting in November 2019 that it is working to form a group to begin looking at potential markets. Referring to this group, SAPPA Chairman André Coetzee emphasized that South Africa “cannot develop a market without production.”

South African Pecan Nut Producers’ Association is like the American pecan industry’s Federal Marketing Order and serves as the leader for the pecan industry in South Africa by guiding growers, processors, and buyers through the tangled web of production. SAPPA recently introduced a new grower program to its long list of projects; through this program, SAPPA will give new farmers one acre of trees to get started and work with each producer as they begin their pecan journey.

Blair and I ended our journey through South Africa’s pecan production on Nov. 20, 2019. After touring a dozen or so orchards, Hardus du Toit dropped us off at the Kimberley airport and said goodbye. We headed back to the States during the heart of harvest in the Northern Hemisphere, while du Toit remained in South Africa’s flowering and pollination stage.

Though a different country on a separate continent in the opposite hemisphere, the South African pecan industry holds the same goals, faces the same production questions, and hopes for the same opportunities as industry members in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

As the global pecan industry comes more into play, the need to understand, connect, and learn from each other grows stronger to advance and meet our common goal: to feed people our favorite nut.

Now entering kernel fill stage, South African growers prepare for the 2020 crop and harvest. Supporting their efforts, Hardus du Toit travels between production regions in his white bakkie and continues his work with SAPPA. He anticipates what’s to come for this young industry.

“If you look at how small pecans are worldwide compared to all the other nuts combined, there are such huge growth opportunities that there’s no risk of overproducing pecans,” du Toit said. “We’re so small if we triple the market, we’re still only a small share of the bits in the world.”

Author Photo

Catherine Clark

Catherine Clark is the managing editor of Pecan South. She has her M.S. in Journalism from the University of Southern California, and her B.A. in Communication and Spanish from Trinity University. For questions, comments or concerns, she can be reached at