14 September 2012

Agriculture

Since it is now spring, I've noticed that some of the fruits and vegetables in the grocery store have started to change, so I was curious about what exactly gets grown here in South Africa, and what has to be imported.  Prices that we pay for goods are obviously very related to the distance they must travel from where they are raised or manufactured.  With transportation costs increasing so much lately, in a lower-resource country like South Africa, the general population tends to rely heavily on food grown or prepared locally.

South Africa is a pretty dry country, and so much of the land here is not terribly suitable for farming; but about 1/8 of the land is arable, which is comparable to many other countries.

South Africa is a Top 10 producing nation for a number of crops:
* Chicory Root (used as a coffee extender here, as it is in New Orleans; also high in fiber, it is often   used as a filler in High-Fiber snack bars in the states)
* Grapefruit (third in production, behind US and China)
* Grain (mostly wheat, sorghum and barley)
* Corn (both for human and animal consumption)
* Castor Oil Seed (used in medicine, chocolate-making, cosmetics and even jewelry)
* Pears
* Sisal (used to make rope, carpets, cat-scratching posts, etc)

South Africa is partially tropical, and so can support a decent tropical fruit industry as well; it exports a large proportion of the tropical fruit grown here, mostly to Europe, where fresh fruits can be provided "off-season" due to the difference in seasons.

There are some nuts produced here, but mostly peanuts and sunflower seeds; other tree nuts do better in warmer climates it seems.

Certainly, wine grapes are a huge commodity here, and sugarcane is still an important crop, especially near Durban, in the KwaZulu-Natal province (you may recall that these sugarcane plantations were behind the reason so many Indians have settled in South Africa, descended from the indentured servants brought in to work the fields.)

The country also produces other crops mostly for internal consumption, like dairy, chicken, cattle and potatoes.  Other livestock like pigs and sheep are also raised for sustenance.  There is a relatively new aquaculture industry, but because of freshwater supply limitations, marine aquaculture is more prevalent, with farmed mussels, oysters, shrimp, seaweed and abalone, which is the most successful program so far.

Ostrich farming got its start in South Africa, originally solely for the production of feathers.  In the early 20th century, the large scale wars caused the industry to collapse, but gradually ostrich farmers figured out that there were other uses for these giant birds, and now South Africa produces nearly 2/3 of all the ostrich products sold in the world.  In addition to the feathers (still used for decoration and for cleaning products), ostrich meat is gaining in popularity around the world, due to its rich taste and low fat and low cholesterol content.  Ostrich hide makes very supple leather, and the large eggs can be hollowed out for decorative purposes as well.  But that's not enough!  The tendons in ostrich legs are used as dog snacks, and are now showing promise to replace torn tendons in humans, and their excellent vision (they can see over 12km away) has led to research into whether their corneas could be used for human transplantation.  Evidently, the ostriches shall save the planet.

There are also a number of crops similar to what you would find in the Carolinas here, including Virginia Tobacco, cotton, and tea.  Rooibos (Redbush) tea has found a substantial market here and overseas, and while not technically a tea plant, it's close enough to get lumped together.

In my travels across the country, I've seen a few of these crops growing, but since they are so different from what I am used to seeing, I probably have seen more of them, but wasn't sure what I was looking at.  Here in Cape Town, where I am working for a few days, I drove past a large ostrich farm, and saw hundreds of the gangly, feather-dustery birds lumbering toward the edge of the fields where they will rest out the darkness by just sitting on the ground.