I am a fruit farmer in Wayne County. Together with my family, we farm approximately 300 acres of apples, peaches and cherries. Most of our apples are grown for fruit processors, and all of our fruit is sold within the Northeast. The majority of our apples actually never travel more than five miles down the road before being sold.
Apple farming is a natural part of Wayne County. It is our main industry and essentially the culture of the people. Apple trees grow inherently well here. We have rich soils and large Lake Ontario which moderates our climate and protects our trees from spring frosts and cold winters and supplies the trees with enough chill units to produce fruit every year. Furthermore, we have solid government and educational institutions in place that support our industry. For many reasons, we can be fortunate to grow fruit in Upstate New York. My trip to South Africa’s apple industry this past winter put that into perspective for me.
On Jan. 10, 2018, I left cold and snowy Wolcott and flew to the hot and dry city of Cape Town, South Africa. From there, I rented a car and drove into rural Africa for my five-week internship in the Ceres and Grabouw fruit growing regions. Each week I spent with a different major fruit corporation which specialized in growing, packing and exporting fruit. I shadowed industry experts and learned a tremendous amount about their methods of growing apples. I went to South Africa curious about what growing apples in a desert climate for a European market, roughly 8,600 miles away, must be like. It was something I had never experienced before! After all, I was accustomed to nearby markets, rainy climates and small to medium sized farms.
Fruit farmers in South Africa have learned to adapt to extremely harsh growing conditions. They deal with scarcely fertile sandy soils, extreme heat, and complex irrigation systems and during the time of my visit, the worst drought in 100 years. Cape Town, South Africa’s second most populated urban area, was facing a “Day 0” when taps were predicted to run dry and all dams were to be depleted of water. To cope with the lack of water, fruit farmers were slashing their watering regimes in half and ripping out orchards. Furthermore, the current government is not very supportive of South African farmers. Reforms that entail seizing land from farm owners and redistributing it to “native populations” were put in place in an attempt to address the racial disparities that exist in land ownership.
Despite both enormous political and climatic hardships, South African fruit farmers have managed to generate massive businesses and successfully grow healthy fruit for both local and foreign markets. The people I met in the fruit industry were hard working, quick on their feet and well educated. They were adaptive and possessed an impressive ability to cope with hardship. Some of the farms I worked with were 10,000 acres and employed thousands of people.
Overall I was massively impressed by the fruit growers of South Africa. I left there with a change of heart and newly gained perspective of our own industry here in the Finger Lakes. Firstly, I learned that we should be thankful for an abundant supply of water and a climate that is naturally conducive to producing apples. I also learned that we should be appreciative of a government that supports us as an industry and that we can sell all of our fruit locally. Lastly, I learned that it is possible to grow apples in some of the most severe conditions and that we have the ability to push ourselves even more as a fruit growing region. I believe that we sit on a great deal of untapped potential here in Wayne County to improve horticulturally and expand our businesses within the agriculture industry.