By Freeman Ngulu.
20 December 2016 – The biggest and earliest grape producing region in the southern hemisphere, Aussenkehr, that supplies grapes to the European market is at risk due to low water levels in the valley.
Up until this year a guaranteed water supply from the Orange River which has always had a plentiful supply is at risk. The river level is at an all-time low and growers are waiting for water to be released in South Africa to reach the valley.
There were differing expectations as to when the water would arrive. Namibia has an agreement with South Africa on this release of water, it should be released only when it is needed in the valley but with the prolonged drought in South Africa it is taking a bit longer.
Andre Vermaak, who has been involved in growing grapes in the valley for around 16 years said that the rain falling in the Limpopo region needs to fill the dams and service the Johannesburg area and fill up all the dams on the way.
“Normally there is enough water to go round but South Africa has been in a drought situation for a couple of years now and only release the water as we need it, he said.
“Grapes need to have a good shelf live. It takes 30 to 34 days till they are on the shelves. You can have great varieties which have good volumes and great taste but if they can’t get to the markets in good shape, it won’t work,” Vermaak added.
According to Vermaak, Aussenkehr has 6-8 weeks of production that relies heavily on cold storage and for 200,000 cartons each week.
“We do run into the early South African season, but that is when we have our red varieties, such as Jack Salute, Crimson or black ARRA 14 which are ready to harvest when South Africa only has the Flame variety available,” Vermaak said, adding that if you plant a late variety in an early area you can still get to the market in early January when no else has these varieties.
He said Namibia has no quarantine period for new rootstocks and there is no waiting list, so they can be shipped and planted right away and due to the climate a new vine can produce volumes within two years.
Meanwhile, having started twenty years ago, according to agricultural commodity portal, Freshplazza, the grape producers’ biggest challenge is heat and dust with temperatures reaching up to 50° Celsius.
“The relatively new production area in the valley which is a long away from any other settlement. The climate is ideal for growing grapes, as it is a hot arid desert climate where it rarely rains. The climate reduces the need for pesticides,” they added.
“Government has increased the supply of electricity to the valley but just have to distribute it. Without sufficient power the water can’t be pumped from the river for irrigation. Water is not the biggest concern in Aussenkehr. However, in order for the companies there to expand, they need to have more electricity to work the pumps which bring the water to the vineyards and to power the packhouses,” they added.
According to Freshplazza, there has been a big improvement as this year they did not experience power cuts in comparison to last season.
“The goal for Namibia is for 10 million cartons by 2020. They predict 6 million cartons will be exported this season. Looking at all the newly planted acreage and uncultivated areas is it easy to imagine 10 million cartons in a few year’s time,” Vermaak added.
“We need to put Namibia on the map. We have changed the whole attitude of the pioneers. Years ago you could put anything on the market because there was no competition, now we have had to up standards to equal the rest with every load tested,” Vermaak concluded.