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A visit to an avocado farm shows how green is the new gold

Feeding the huge appetite for avocado has become a fast-growing business, as a fascinating trip to ZZ2’s Afrikado farm in Limpopo shows

01 May 2022 - 00:00
Avocados have been classed as a superfood.
Avocados have been classed as a superfood.
Image: Johan van Rensburg

My love affair with the avocado started with the tree — a huge avo tree in the front garden of  my childhood home in Durban. The allure wasn’t the fruit — huge buttery green-skinned KZN avos that fell to the ground with a huge plop — the joy was in climbing it.  I always beat my older sister to the top, from where our vista went way beyond the roof of the house as it stretched to Durban Harbour. We we loved soaking up the sights — ships coming and going, tug boats, cranes and  the occasional yacht bobbing on the sea.

It was our family dog Toto who really relished the fruit. His favourite place was sitting under the tree, one paw holding down an avo, the other opening it up and  lapping up the soft fruit. Perhaps this was why he was so healthy and his black coat was as shiny as newly polished shoes.

That’s the thing about avocados. Apart from their deliciousness, they are packed full of  wholesomeness.  And feeding the huge appetite for avocado has become a fast-growing business.

I thought about my childhood avocado tree as I boarded a small plane to fly to the Lowveld. The area is the biggest producer of avocados in SA and I was going to visit ZZ2, one of the biggest fresh produce companies in the Mooketsi Valley. Better known for the quality tomatoes they grow year-round, we were here to visit their vast avocado plantations and witness first-hand their Harmony Avs concept, where ZZ2 Afrikado, working in harmony with nature, have handpicked 12 avocado varieties to concentrate on. This means they can now deliver the valuable fruit to the consumer for 12 months of the year.

It’s an impressive 1,000ha operation and we kicked off by watching a team of pickers clear a harvest of haas avocados, shiny green beauties with thick skins, in record time and later saw the fruit arrive at ZZ2's recently opened 100,000 ton state-of the-art packhouse. Here the avos  were washed, sorted and packed into crates, ready to be shipped to international and local markets.

A plantation of avo trees.
A plantation of avo trees.
Image: Johan van Rensburg

While visiting the nursery the next morning, we followed the intricate process where the seed (the pip) is nurtured through different stages to produce robust avocado tree seedlings. The nursery produces 350,000 trees a year.

To produce top-quality avocados, ZZ2 developed Natuurboerdery, a concept where they work holistically with nature and the elements of sunlight, water and soil,  moving away from easy, quick-fix chemical solutions towards more complex biological solutions.

Soil health was the most fundamental  area of change  and the conceptualised practices play a major role in growing productive plants. Water is fundamental to production — avocado production is thirsty work —  and Natuurboerdery is about balancing the natural environment with technology to conserve and use water sparingly. 

We saw how the trees are cultivated on ridges and valley slopes because they don’t like their roots in water, and also so  that water run-off  can be collected and re-used.

I discovered that avocado trees are easier to manage when kept shorter and pruned asymmetrically: the first year they are pruned on the left hand side; the second on the right, and the top is pruned in the third year. All of this  makes picking easier. Baby trees are wrapped in “nappies”,  a  cloth that  offers protection from the elements and gives them the best start in life. The most intriguing thing I learnt was that avocado trees, just like humans, suffer from sunburn and so  the trunk and branches are painted with white PVA for protection.

AVOCADOS IN A NUTSHELL

 

  • The trend towards healthier eating and plant-based lifestyles has increased the demand for the versatile avocado, which is classed as a superfood.
  • Unlike most fruit, avocados ripen off the tree which means they can travel well and withstand the three-week journey to export markets.
  • Of the avocados produced in SA, half are exported, with the  majority of the fruit headed for the UK and European markets.
  • It takes an avocado tree two to three years before it produces its first crop of fruit.
  • The top-selling varietals of avocado in SA are the haas, which has a thick skin that turns dark when ripe,  and the fuetre, which is a thin-skinned green avocado.
  • The distinctive ZZ2 logo in red lettering on a yellow background originated in 1903 as a branding iron to mark livestock and later became a trademark for all ZZ2’s products.

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