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Guatemalan produce importers join forces for the common good

Recently, the U.S.-based Guatemalan Produce Trade Association brought its members together to jointly tout fresh product from that Central American country, stressing a high level of attention to quality and food safety.gua

Robert Colescott, president and chief executive officer of Southern Specialties, and Jay Rodriguez, president and chief executive officer of Crystal Valley Foods, are the co-chairmen of the association. Along with Priscilla Lleras-Bush, coordinator of the group, the threesome discussed the history and virtues of Guatemalan products and articulating the value GPTA members can bring to U.S. buyers.

“We want our customers to know that members of the association have important shared values,” said Colescott. He listed quality assurance, quality control and sustainability as the three main product attributes GPTA has come together to emphasize. He said all growers associated with members are in compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act, that they have traceability efforts in place, participate in farm and plant audits and conduct laboratory testing for residues. They also pack to specific standards and he added, “as a group, we are actively and financially involved with growers and in the communities we work. We care about the well-being of our people and planet.”

Lleras-Bush said the members of GPTA will be working jointly to promote Guatemalan product. “We are combining efforts, strengths and synergies to capture the attention of retailers and foodservice, not by our words, but by our products’ reliability and commitment to quality that we stand behind.”

She said that the most important thing importers can do is provide product reliability, which enables retailers to promote with confidence at store level. “GPTA importers have decades of experience with Guatemalan products,” she added. “We are savvy to the needs of retailers and foodservice — and go out of our way to provide the finest quality and dependability throughout the season. I have to say, GPTA importers are the most qualified importers of Guatemalan products. They have their fingers on the pulse and only buy from the best.”  

At PMA Fresh Summit, Lleras-Bush said many of the member companies will host their own booths. “I encourage retailers and foodservice to contact our membership in advance, schedule some time with them while at PMA to talk about our quality commitments. Speak one-on-one with them and see the passion and dedication for their customers first hand.”IMG 0331

Guatemala’s Agricultural History
Colescott said Guatemala’s agricultural economy dates back a couple of hundred years to the arrival of the Spaniards and the disruption of the indigenous ways of the Mayan people, who were either driven off their land or were converted into “residents” of the new plantations.

“With the invention of chemical dyes in Europe in the 1800s, the export market for Guatemala’s indigo and dyes collapsed,” he said. “Coffee was then developed as an export crop to take their place. By 1880, coffee accounted for 90 percent of Guatemala’s export.”

In the early 1900s banana crops were planted in Central America and Guatemala quickly became a dominant banana exporter, which at the time was controlled by only two companies — Standard Fruit and United Fruit. Later these companies would become Dole and Chiquita, respectively.

Colescott said sugar became an important crop after World War II and gained market share when Cuba was shut out by the United States in the 1960s. He said even today, “Guatemala’s sugar industry is one of the most productive sectors in the country and one of the most productive producers in the world.”

For farmers, Colescott said the tide began to turn in 1950 when populist Jacobo Arbenz was elected president and slowly began implementing land reform. The Arbenz government was overthrown with the help of the United States in 1954 and decades of unrest ensued. A peace agreement was signed in 1996 between the Guatemalan government and anti-government forces.

“The accomplishment of the peace agreements was that they brought an end to the longest war in the Americas,” said Colescott. “However, the causes of the conflict — poverty, hunger, unequal land distribution and racism faced by the indigenous population — continue today and continue to define Guatemala’s agriculture economy.”

Rodriquez also noted that produce from Guatemala has been coming to the United States for almost a century, with bananas to the Western U.S. market in the 1920s being that country’s first produce export.

An Expanding Product Mix
“The expansion into other crops was definitely an evolutionary process,” Rodriguez said. “One major impetus was the Caribbean Basin Initiative of 1983 under which the U.S. government established preferential tariffs for select Caribbean nations, including Guatemala, in order to incentivize development of exports to bolster local economies via job creation. It was during that period that a more structured search for diversified crop production was initiated via a combination of government sponsored and private enterprise efforts.”

He said this effort began with specialty vegetable production trials in the Guatemalan highlands focusing on cool temperature crops like snow peas, sugar snap peas and specialty squash. “Those efforts gave birth to Guatemalan cooperatives, private Guatemalan farming and export companies, and specialty import companies in North America and Europe that today are providing a year around supply of products.”

Over the years, the product list has expanded to include winter melons, baby carrots, baby squash, blackberries, broccoli, cauliflower and French beans.

Today, he said there are a variety of production areas that are suited for distinct fresh fruit and vegetable export, based on altitude and temperature. “The highlands around Antigua are ideal cool weather vegetable product farming areas, with climates reminiscent of the Salinas Valley in California during several months of the year,” Rodriguez said. “The lower altitude coastal plains are perfect for growing melons and some Asian vegetables for the U.S. and European Winter markets.”

Rodriguez said fine-tuning of the product mix continues as growers investigate new microclimates and work with universities in Guatemala, the United States and Europe to identify new, higher value products for the international market, and for domestic production as well. “Examples of the new crops that were added for export are mangoes, papaya, avocados and current production trials with different varieties of grapes and blueberries,” he said.

Colescott said the production of fruits and vegetables for export has been dominated by small-scale, mostly Mayan growers for more than 40 years. “Adoption of these crops was promoted in the 1970s and 1980s by international development agencies as a poverty-reduction strategy, partly because it was felt that farmers with very little land could exploit the one comparative advantage they held — abundant household labor — to produce labor-intensive, high-value crops.”

He recalled that snow pea cultivation in Guatemala became known as the peace crop, since it came into being to give an opportunity to rural communities affected by the armed conflict nearly three decades ago. Colescott credited onetime partner and agronomist Ted Elsasser, formerly of United Fruit, for boosting the country’s ag economy.

“Upon his retirement, he chose Guatemala as his home and later teamed up with members from USAID to provide technical support to Mayan growers in the Highlands,” he said, noting that Guatemalan growers have always thrived by producing labor-intensive crops as their competitive advantage.

Today’s Value Proposition
Rodriguez said items like snow peas, sugar snap peas, baby carrots and baby squash are shipped 52 weeks a year. There is, however, a peak volume period in the January to May market window that coincides with optimum production capabilities and heavy demand from both the United States and Europe. Winter melons are still produced for that production window during which melons cannot be produced in the United States.

Colescott said October through April is Guatemala’s main producing period, “This compliments the increased demand throughout North America. Especially for holiday promotion periods.”

He added that over the years, English peas, hand peeled baby carrots and greenhouse grown specialty tomatoes have also been added to the mix.

“Our farming and packing operations in Guatemala provide our foodservice and retail customers with some genuinely unique opportunities,” said Rodriquez.

He singled out the hand packing capabilities in Guatemala, which, he said, “enable us to offer unparalleled product presentations that cannot be matched by a machine loose fill pack.”

He added that direct management of acreage planning and pack activities, “enable us to offer custom farming to our customers so that we can produce items for them that meet their unique product and presentation specifications.”

Colescott pointed to several other advantages that Guatemala has to offer, including growing crops using sustainable agriculture practices, which is the desire of today’s consumers. “This includes social and environmental responsibility measures.”

He also noted that the future looks bright for this Central American country. “Guatemala has 11 million hectares of fertile land and only 12 percent is cultivated. There are 360 micro climates, which are beneficial to almost every type of crop.”

Colescott said U.S. customers of Guatemalan produce encompass every region of the country, but most are upscale foodservice distributors or niche market retailers. “Historically, foodservice has majority market share with mini vegetables and I would say it’s an equal split on most other items. Home delivery, meal kits and prepared meals will begin to drive growth with Guatemalan items. Most of these items require less time to cook and are ideal for enhancing your presentations.”