Why prickly pears are suddenly a hot crop in SA

Business Insider SA
Cactus pear
(Image by Angeles Balaguer from Pixabay)

  • Cactus pear farming is seeing renewed interest in South Africa thanks to drought and climate change.
  • But the many uses, for every part of the plant, also seems to be attracting farmers.
  • At its peak the fruit can sell for R70 000 a tonne, but it is very labour intensive to harvest.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

Cactus pears, or prickly pears, are seeing renewed interest from farmers in South Africa, due to climate change and drought as well as the plant’s numerous uses.

“There has been a huge new interest in the crop over the past three or four years,” says Hermanus Fouché, who works for the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and is also a researcher for the University of the Free State (UFS).

The drought conditions in many parts of South Africa is helping to boost the interest of local farmers in growing the cactus pear, Fouché says.

For example, a farmer in the Western Cape, which has experienced a severe drought recently, wants to replace his grapevines with cactus pear, Fouché says.

The Alien and Invasive Species Regulations of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act define the prickly pear as an invasive species that must be destroyed.

However, farmers can legally propagate the spineless cactus pear.

Fouché estimates that there are more than 900 local farms that devote a total of about 4 500 hectares to cactus pear production, including 1 500 hectares to harvest the fruit and 3 000 hectares for fodder.

Cactus pear is a very labour-intensive crop during fruit harvesting, Fouché says.

A farm needs about five people per hectare to harvest the crop while out-of-season one worker per hectare is required to maintain the cactuses.

During the harvest, local farms employ up to 7 500 people to pick prickly pear fruit.

In October in Pretoria a cactus pear fruit could sell for R7, or between R46 666 and R70 000 a tonne, with the fruit weighing between 100 grams and 150 grams, Fouché says

However, in the midseason during January and February, when there is usually an oversupply, a cactus pear can sell for R2 or between R13 333 and R20 000 a tonne.

A hectare planted with prickly pear can yield between 20 and 30 tonnes of fruit a year, he says.

Assuming an average fruit yield of 20 tonnes per hectare, the value of the cactus pear fruit production harvested from 1 500 hectares at a price of R13 333 a ton could be worth at least R400 million.

Cactus pear fruit is stocked by the major retail chains such as Pick n Pay, Woolworths, and Shoprite as well as by local fruit shops, greengrocers, and farmers’ markets, say Maryna de Wit of the UFS

She is researching the use of the young cladodes, or “leaves”, to create new forms of local food to compile a cactus pear recipe book, due out soon.

An example of a dish using the cactus pear pad is nopalitos, a big favourite in Mexico.

The cactus pear originated in the semi-arid regions of central and South America, especially Mexico where the plant is a staple food.

South African farmers are also showing a renewed interest in the cactus pear due to the plant’s many uses.

“It is one of the most multi-use crops that I know. No part of the plant is wasted,” Fouché says.

Farmers can use the cactus pear to make fodder and silage, consumers can eat the fruit, biogas made from the plant can produce electricity, the fruit can be used to make oil, juice, jam, jelly, and chutney, and the cladodes can be turned into salads or preservatives like gherkins.

Those interested in alcohol can use the cactus pear fruit to make beer, wine, mampoer, or liqueurs, Fouché says.

“The only limitation is your imagination and the readiness of the market to accept these products.”

Right now there is a lot of interest in using the cactus pear fruit to make oil.

“The oil is used by the cosmetics industry to make face cream products. It has excellent healing properties, and so the oil can be used in ointments to help with burn wounds,” De Wit says.

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