HLB Specialties LLC in Pompano Beach, FL, continues to import its high-quality papayas from Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico, Homero Levy de Barros, president and chief executive officer for the company, told The Produce News.
“The three countries keep us supplied year-round,” said de Barros. “The papayas from Brazil are the small golden type, which is a variation of the Sunrise Solo. We source the large Tainung variety papaya from Mexico and from Guatemala. We refer to the Tainung by our marketing name, the ‘Formosa,’ which is an old Portuguese name. Because we are from Brazil, we wanted to retain the name.”
The company’s primary brand from Brazil, however, is “Caliman.” It uses the “HLB” label on product from Mexico, which is shipped to the Midwest and Western United States.
HLB’s relationship with the grower Caliman has expanded to 12 countries over its 21-year growing partner history. Caliman developed the Solo papaya over 35 years ago. For the past 15 years, HLB has imported the fruit into the U.S.
“Caliman also produces the ‘Formosa’ papaya, but they export it to Europe,” de Barros explained. “Every grower we work with produces papayas year-round. There are times when the fruit is juicier, and times when it’s drier. Sometimes it’s even more concentrated. These variations all have to do with weather and climate changes. For example, Mexico was hit by three hurricanes in the past season. The soil cannot absorb all of the moisture these storms deliver.”
The point he was making is that growing papayas is an enormous challenge because the fruit reacts to even minor growing condition changes. Growers have to be totally dedicated, knowledgeable and experienced at what they are doing so they can quickly mitigate issues such as too much rain.
“Commercial papaya trees have a precise growing cycle, and you have to conform to it,” said de Barros. “The trees can grow very tall if you let them, but we don’t because of the cycle. There is a curve in how the tree produces fruit, and the peak is on the first 12 months. This varies depending on the variety, but basically the cycle is that we plant, the trees grow for eight months, and we harvest at 12 months and the tree is cut down and replaced.”
He also noted that it takes a strong personality to be a papaya producer. An entire crop can be destroyed in one night if a strong enough hurricane hits.
“Caliman has been producing papayas for 35 years, so they know what they’re doing,” said de Barros. “Every farm plants up to 2,000 trees per hectare [2.5 acres]. A farm with 180,000 trees would be considered a small farm. One of our farmers has 1.4 million trees.”
It’s also a crop that requires constant attention. Every grower has a team that walks the groves every week. If they see an insect they immediately cut the tree down regardless of how much fruit is on it. And they cut down every tree surrounding it.
“It’s a true science,” said de Barros. “You have to be very courageous to plant papaya trees. You can count 10 companies in the world that produce the quality and quantity that matches Caliman. Newcomers often surface, but they soon learn the harsh reality and they fade away. That’s a problem, however, because they upset what should be a steady market of high-quality papayas.”
As word about the high nutritional value of papayas spreads more through media venues, and more people experience a truly good-tasting papaya for the first time, the more the demand in the U.S. increases.
“The advantage of doing business with HLB is our strategy of diversity,” said de Barros. “We have five growing regions that enable us to mitigate any weather issues. If we have a problem in one region, we have four others to fall back on. That gives us a more reliable supply.
“Nor do we cut quality to cut costs,” he continued. “We go back to our growers when any issue arises and tell them that they have to know what they’re doing and learn to mitigate any potential problem. This is the only way to have reliability in supply and quality of the product.”