CITRUSDAL, South Africa — There’s no lack of pests in U.S. citrus groves, but consider the plight of South African growers.

Greedy baboons apparently like oranges and clementines.

South African exporters don't monkey around
Chris Koger
News Editor

There’s no single method to deterring the federally protected animal, though some admit taking potshots at the primates. Not necessarily to harm them, though. They quickly catch on and skedaddle when they see the gun again.

One grower established his own “neighborhood watch,” parking his truck with a vantage point of his groves. Unfortunately, the baboons saw through this and sent a scout to look for the truck.

Piet Smit, chief executive officer of the Citrusdal-based Western Cape Citrus Producers Forum, which invited me to tour groves and packinghouses in late May, came up with a solution.

His company, Cedarpack Pty. Ltd., dumps bins of damaged and culled oranges near the groves. The baboons eat the oranges and leave fruit on the trees.

If the buffet isn’t offered, however, Smit said the baboons are back in full force.

In Cape Town, city leaders, wildlife advocates and angry residents are dealing with aggressive baboons that are ripping off siding and breaking doors to get inside houses for a snack.

Anyone feeding baboons can be prosecuted because it encourages them to grab food from people and enter cars. Some tour operators reportedly feed the animals for photo ops for tourists.

One consolation: At least elephants aren’t roaming the Citrusdal area. A ranger at the game reserve I stayed at said elephants “go mental” over oranges.

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As for smaller threats (in terms of actual size, but not importance) to the industry, a novel approach to control false codling moths is decreasing the number of the pests in groves.

XSIT, which stands for X-Sterile Insect Technology, sterilizes and releases millions of moths during the warmer months to decrease their numbers. The program was established by a growers’ group and the federal government and citrus growers pay on a basis of acreage.

An interesting note: The larvae love acorns, and some areas of South Africa are known for their stately oaks.

Stellenbosch, which is near Cape Town, is known as the City of Oaks, and the trees are part of its charm.

The trees’ origin can be traced to the city’s Dutch founders, who decreed that settlers must plant the oaks, in a move to establish the South African wine industry.

The oak was to be used to build barrels to age wine. The wood, however was too porous and the oaks stand.

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I’m a beer drinker at heart, but South Africa is a wine country. Fortunately I had many “teaching moments” during my stay. Aided by growers’ passion for wine, I learned to appreciate the complexity of growing wine grapes.

Johan van Zyl, owner and president of Heidedal Boerdery in the Clanwilliam district north of Citrusdal, offered samples of his Grenache, grown from vines his great-grandfather planted more than 50 years ago.

It took almost that long before the vines had matured enough for the best flavors, and with only 200 acres in the area, the grapes are a rarity among South African varieties. You certainly can’t buy any of van Zyl’s Grenache.

Van Zyl uncorked a few of those bottles at a May 28 reception for the industry at Gerrit van der Merwe’s house. Acting U.S. consul general Paul Patin, who will be relocating to France soon, was on hand to hear about the challenges facing the industry.

At the reception, Anton Rabie, chief executive officer of the Deciduous Fruit Producers Trust, spoke of the turmoil after the first few years of deregulation in 1997.

Previously, Capespan Ltd. was the sole marketer of Western Cape fruit.

“It was chaos in the industry,” said Rabie said, who referred to his role as president of the South African “tug-of-war” association.

Rabie and others also spoke about the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows thousands of items from 41 African countries to reach the U.S. duty-free.

That, in part, has allowed the fruit industry to expand post-deregulation, Rabie said, at 8% of South Africa’s gross domestic product.

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It’s refreshing to see growers sitting at a table, sharing expectations of the season, which lasts into October. Western Cape Citrus Producers Forum members meet Wednesdays to map out their export program, specifically targeting the lucrative U.S. market.

If there are problems at the port of arrival, such as last year when some cartons in containers were damaged on arrival, the shippers can discuss solutions.

Baboons aside, exporters don’t tolerate monkey business when it comes to the U.S.