The history of SAPPA and the South African pecan industry

The history of SAPPA and the South African pecan industry. By Heiko Meier


South Africa has a long history of pecan production which gradually shifted West as the industry matured. Pioneer farmers started planting mostly seedlings in Natal and the Lowveld. My grandparents had mature pecan trees on their farm in Natal more than 50 years ago, those trees must now be at least 70 to 80 years old and are still producing. As a child my grandmother told me that one of the younger trees is a Moneymaker that she bought at the Halls Nursery in Nelspruit.


HL Halls started the first commercial pecan Nursery in South Africa and dominated the pecan Industry for decades. At that time they established the largest pecan orchard in South Africa  around the town of Nelspruit, which peaked at about 550 Ha. They had the only commercial pecan nursery and the only large commercial shelling plant in the country. In later years they even imported the first mechanical harvesting equipment, although it was never used commercially. Their processing plant had no pre cleaning facility to take in the dirty mechanically harvested crop and manual harvesting proved to be more cost effective

The early days

The first commercial research work was done by the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, by Horticulturists like Prof Le Roux and Prof Nigel Wolstenholme. Early orchards  were established as isolated pockets in Muden, Weenen, Zululand and the then Eastern Transvaal Lowveld. They had a program to select promising seedling varieties around the county and by pure chance selected a seedling in their own orchard that they planted as rootstock. This became the Ukulinga variety named after the Ukulinga Research Station in Pietermaritzburg. With good scab resistance and consistent bearing, Ukulinga proved to be the most popular variety for the eastern growing region in South Africa.

After returning from Texas, pecan climate researcher Prof Nigel Wolstonholme was convinced that the pecan industry in South Africa will eventually shift west. Through encouragement by the University of Natal small pecan test orchards were  established in the early seventies and early eighties in the dry western climate. The largest orchard of about 25 Ha was established in Hopetown by Oom Pietie Roux. Albert Boumeester Snr established an orchard of the same size in Cullinan and Michael Antobus established a small orchard in Cradock. Other orchards were planted in Vaalharts and Upington. These early test orchards proved to be the trigger for new larger plantings in future.

Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops 

The Institute for Tropical and Subtropical Crops established pecan variety blocks in Nelspruit, Rodeplaat and at the Research Station in Addo. They did a lot of research work and established a platform for potential growers and Nurserymen to get the basic information on the production of pecans. Johan Oostuizen and Willem Oosthuizen became well known faces in the pecan industry. Under their guidance many new growers established nurseries to produce trees for their own orchards. Johan was also responsible for importing new pecan Varieties.

The beginning of SAPPA

In 1991 the Institute took the initiative to arrange a pecan stakeholders meeting in Nelspruit. Out of this event  SAPPA was born.  Chris Roux was elected as first chairman of the newly established association and held the position for ten years. The first board members were Allen White, John Eckhard, Joubert Badenhorst, Nick Ray, Chris Roux, Micheal Antrobus, Frikkie Yeats and Johan Oosthuizen as secretary. Interestingly all these founder board members or their descendants are still directly involved in the pecan industry today.

SAPPA and the first USA visit

South Africa was politically isolated for many years and information became more and more outdated. In 1997 Joubert Badenhorst suggested that we arrange a pecan information tour to the United States. Sapeco an IDC run company was asked to arrange the tour, but after selling their pecan farm, they pulled out.

With no previous experience in overseas travel arrangements and no e-mail available I took up the job. I faxed requests to visit, mostly to fax numbers picked up in the Pecan South.  With more than fifty growers interested, we fortunately ended with only four members committing. I arranged a two week tour with only our first night booked in a hotel and a fixed appointment for the first morning after arrival. We had a basic travel plan to cover most pecan research facilities in the US and to see some of the large growers, nurseries and processing facilities.

We were received so well in the United States that one contact passed us on to the next. With this tour the pecan industry in South Africa entered a new era. Suddenly we had access to this wealth of information on pecans. We established an invaluable working relationship with so many new pecan experts.

Other SAPPA pecan visits

Directly out of this tour followed a visit by Dr Bruce Wood and Esteban Herrera to South Africa that benefited our growers in all the growing regions. Dr Bruce Wood toured the Eastern Region and Esteban Herrera covered the West. Both joint us in Nelspruit for our AGM and Symposium.

SAPPA arranged a follow up visit by Esteban Herrera and offered the Texas Pecan Shortcourse here in our own country.

In 2006 a SAPPA delegation was invited to Stahmann Farms in Australia to improve our working relationship with them. On a short notice the then chairman of SAPPA Albert Boumeester arranged a trip and again four members attended. Dean Stahmann treated us with his Caravan airplane and we covered the relatively small pecan industry, in a large country, in a matter of days. The amazing production figures of Stahmann Farms became an inspiration to all of us and many lessons on the do’s and don’ts of hedging were learned.

A return visit was arranged were Geoff Dodd CEO of Stahmann Farms Australia visited South Africa. He attended our AGM and saw various growing regions in our country.

In 2011 Netafim organised a pecan tour to the USA and the International Pecan Conference held in Mexico. Contacts were established with new pecan Experts abroad.

The success of the Mexican Conference gave birth to the idea of having our own South African Pecan Conference and the rest is history.

Shift in production from East to West

As predicted years ago by Prof Nigel the pecan industry has indeed shifted from East to West. More than 90% of all new plantings are established in the drier Western Climate. Halls who once dominated the whole industry have sold most of their orchards to property development around Nelspruit. Many orchards in the Lowveld and in Zululand have been sold to the government in their land redistribution programs and have lost most of their production. The Institute in Nelspruit and Rodeplaat have shifted their focus to educate subsistence farmers and to teach them basic farming practises. They have lost their edge and focus on quality pecan research.

SAPPA and the future

As in the past SAPPA still represents the pecan grower. The focus has changed as the dynamics of the pecan industry have changed. In the past we had an information hunger and SAPPA created the platform for information transfer. Mainly from the United States. Today the internet and e-mail supply us with all the info we can handle. Producers know what they want. The industry has matured.

Growers start planting the right cultivars for the right reasons. Wichita and Navaho are planted for high yield and high shell out percentage and start producing early. Choctaw is planted for large nuts with a high percentage whole haves and easy hand shelling (mainly for the Chinese market). Ukulinga, Barton, Marina and Elliott are planted for scab resistance. Western and Choctaw show the least Zink shortage on high alkaline soil. Barton and Pawnee are planted for cold tolerance. Sutex a very high yielding seedling selected by Cobus Sutherland of Hopetown is tested in trail plantings in other regions. At this stage Sutex is completely scab free and is worth testing for Natal.

As early as 1997 LJ Grauke and Tommy Thompson told me that Navaho is their number one choice as  pollinator to plant with Wichita. This was later confirmed by the manager of Stahmann Farms in Australia. Most of the first Navaho trees that I produced ten years ago I planted myself as nobody wanted to buy them.

Till about 20 years ago I did not produce a single Wichita tree, today 70% of my production is Wichita. Early nurseries produced large numbers of Pawnee trees as their grafting success was high and not because growers specifically wanted them. Many Ukulinga trees were planted in the West because trees were available and not because they are the best producers.

What are our future challenges?

–              Political uncertainty, land reform and land redistribution remain a large challenge for the private grower, especially with a long term permanent crop like pecans. This is also the reason that large Institutions seldom invest in agriculture in South Africa.

–              The cost of electricity has increased dramatically over the past few years. With Eskom demanding annual increases of up to 16%, above inflation price hikes will remain a reality for the future.

–              Cost of labour, although still very low in world terms, will increase dramatically. The focus will have to change from low labour cost, to higher productivity.

–              Productivity of labour is very low and is further suppressed by the effects of HIV Aids, a reality in Africa.

–              The cost of water will increase above the inflation rate and water quality is under constant thread.

–              Disease pressure will increase as more orchards are planted.

When visiting the States in 1997 South African producers made exceptional profits although our average yield was low. Pecan farmers in the USA made normal profits. Our electricity cost was very low, labour was cheap, water was affordable and water quality was good. We sold our pecans in US$ but our costs were paid for in ZAR.

We still make exceptional profits today, despite the challenges we have to face. The US$ price of pecans has increased dramatically as demand from China rises. Yields in South Africa have increased substantially as the industry matures. With the weakening of the ZAR our financial position in future becomes even better.

To stay competitive producers will have to focus on high yields of quality pecans. Mechanisation and outsourcing or contract harvesting will become a must.

SAPPA will have to take over the role of the Institute in Nelspruit and Rodeplaat. We as growers will have to pay for our own research or for whatever we want to have done. SAPPA  represents the pecan producer and nobody else. SAPPA can levy funds from government, industry sponsors, or from producer levies, but does it purely to the benefit of the grower.

A close and good working relationship with our American, Mexican and Australian counterparts, proves to be the best solution and most cost effective way to get quality information directly to our growers.

We still have one of the best pecan climates, cheap irrigation land, with plenty of opportunities to expand  pecan production and are very competitive on the world market. For us as farmers, that are already in agriculture, I see no better opportunity than to invest in pecans.

New plantings are bigger than ever.

Trees produced by the formal pecan nurseries:

2010 – 187 900

2011 – 253 115

2012 – 262 350

2013 – 240 000 (estimate – frost damage)

2014 – 300 000 (forecast)

2015 – 330 000 (forecast)

Production statistics and forecasts:

2010 – 5 747

2011 – 4 847

2012 – 8 200 ton (actual)

2013 – 6 000 ton (estimate)

2014 – 15 000 ton (prediction)

Heiko Meier – (Chairman) – 2013