One of the highlights of each year’s Global Trade Symposium is the panel focusing on the opportunities and challenges of trade with Latin America. Organized by Gustavo Yentzen, who is the General Manager of FreshFruitPortal.com and its Spanish Language sister PortalFruticola.com, and who manages our Latin American operations out of Santiago, Chile, the panel this year consists of five produce industry rock stars:
Juan Camilo Barrera, Agribusiness Executive Director, ProColombia USA
Jerald Down, President, Berry People
Jorge Echenique, General Manager, Last Land Farms
Andrew Schwartz, Founder, JAL Agro
William Weyland, Vice President of Imports, 7 Seas Fruit
Because Colombia has been the focus of a lot of attention as a new supply source for avocados, we asked Matthew Ogg, Contributing Editor for pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, to get a little preview of the kinds of issues Juan Camilo Barrera will be discussing in New York:
Juan Camilo Barrera
Agribusiness Executive Director
Q: You have had a new government now in Colombia since August with Iván Duque as president. As far as agriculture is concerned, this comes off the back of a series of protocol developments and breakthroughs, including most notably U.S. market access for Colombian avocados. What are your expectations for the new government in power in terms of investments and development for the agricultural sector, and what have you seen so far?
A: Thank you very much for the question. The new government of Colombia has been very vocal regarding its interest in the agricultural sector. So far in a short period of time, they have already proposed a bill to congress that is seeking, among other things, to reduce income taxes for foreign direct investment into the agricultural sector in Colombia.
This is in mind to keep the projection of Colombia’s continuous growth in the fruit industry in general, which has grown by 30% in the past five years, not including bananas. So, for the new government I would say it’s still a key issue.
They have been vocal about bringing in foreign direct investment and making it easier for foreign investors to look into Colombia as a potential place to grow their operations, both to produce and export in Colombia but also to serve as a hub for the region.
Q: What have been some hurdles in general that have hindered investment to date?
A: The thing is for the agricultural sector, as Colombia is strategically located, it is a very big interest. That being said, Colombia’s geography is particularly complex. As you know the Andes mountains break into three in Colombia, so it makes it a little bit of a challenge depending on what you’re looking for in the agricultural sector to get product from the middle of the country to the coast.
That is why a few years ago, the earlier government, the [Juan Manuel] Santos government, had started a project in which investments already started for the development for new ports and roads in Colombia. The current president will continue to work in this, and they have expressed their interest in fortifying the current road infrastructure, which is probably one of the main topics when we talk about Colombian products.
Besides all the investments currently being made, we also have a wide availability of air and sea transportation options. Harnessing these is the last step toward our full potential. Earlier administrations and now President Duque have been giving high priority to it. An example of that is the roads in the western part of the country, as well as the new port in UraIbá.
There is also a lot of land availability in the coastal regions… it is important to remember that the availability of land now that FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has closed its operations in most of the country with the peace treaty, this has opened a lot of opportunities for rural areas that earlier were considered conflict zones, but nowadays would be available for different sorts of crops to be grown in the country.
Also, because of the Andes breaking into three, this means you can pretty much produce any type of product year-round because you would get stable climate conditions, depending on what you need, in different areas of the country.
Q: And what are the latest updates for getting new market access arrangements in the U.S. for Colombian fruits and vegetables?
A: For the U.S. in particular, we recently were able to gain access for the avocados in the U.S. We are currently working on avocados for other countries such as China, and also for the U.S., for example, we’re working on bell peppers. There are some other products in the works, but we’re also trying to gain access for other products that are a little bit more exotic.
Colombia has increased year-over-year its production of passiflora (passion fruit, granadilla), in particular the purple passion fruit that in Spanish we call Gulupa. It is one that has grown significantly. It’s now one of our top three if we take bananas aside; the top three exports in 2017 were avos, the goldenberry or cape gooseberry, and the purple passion fruit.
Q: The goldenberry is another success story that’s worth touching on. Following the lead of a boom in Europe, the product has increased its presence in the U.S. Has that plateaued now or do you see continued growth?
A: I do see continuous growth. There are major brands that have looked into the product; one of them is actually bringing it. Definitely the goldenberry’s top three markets right now are in Europe — I’m talking about the Netherlands, Germany and the U.K. as the top three markets for that product being exported from Colombia.
I guess from the U.S., it’s a matter of time and getting the consumer to know the product and its versatility. For me, it’s probably one of the most versatile fruits there is, because of the amount of things you can do with it.
It is growing year-after-year, and we are very hopeful that exports to the U.S. will continue to grow as consumers realize what the product is and what its benefits are.
And now the restrictions have eased for what we need to comply, because of the systems approach we worked on with APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and ICA (Colombian Agricultural Institute) to bring it without cold treatment from a specific region in Colombia. In that case, that’s really facilitated creating that sense because it makes it more available at a better price for the end consumer.
The growth in production continues in Cundinamarca and Boyacá in Colombia, and the exporters themselves are growing and complying with what’s being asked for. Business is growing as consumption grows as well.
Q: You mentioned discussions for bell peppers and passion fruit. What are the protocols being contemplated there and what timelines are you looking at potentially to get access in the States?
A: It’s hard to say with timelines when it comes to access, but we’re hoping that for bell peppers we will gain access sometime maybe in 2019 – we are in the final stages with bell peppers, so we’re very interested in that and think Colombia might be a very attractive partner for the U.S.
Regarding the passion fruit, the purple passion fruit in particular, we are working on irradiation. They most likely will have the regular treatment, but irradiation is something we’ve been working on somewhere in the order of two years with APHIS and ICA to get a protocol up and running to be able to irradiate products here in the U.S. before they enter the market.
This will apply initially for products we already have access for, so products such as pitahaya or dragon fruit — yellow dragon fruit in particular.
Products such as papaya out of Colombia will be able to enter the U.S. market once we have irradiation, because they are currently authorized but we don’t have the treatment facilities for them in Colombia authorized for the U.S. market.
In the case of pitahaya, there’s hot vapor treatment which needs to be made. We do have the facilities, but they are not authorized for the U.S.; they are mainly used for eastern Asian countries. We are working with irradiation facilities here in the U.S. so that can be an option.
To be able to do that, it’s about working on the trade routes themselves. Recently there’s a new flight that will come into play between Medellin and Gulfport, Mississippi, where there’s an irradiation facility. Because of the floral industry, there is a lot of flights and availability via air to bring in some of these exotics where some of them are already brought by air, such as goldenberry, for example.
Q: The yellow pitahaya was something of a taste sensation in the U.S. when Ecuador entered with that fruit. Does that serve as an inspiration for your country of what’s possible in the market?
A: Colombia is definitely on the lookout for things that we can work on. You mentioned Ecuador, but it’s important to remember that we have been selling pitahaya to other countries for a long time. For us our main markets for the yellow dragon fruit are Japan and South Korea, the reason being because the price of the market over there is very attractive for the current supply that we have. As that supply grows, availability will grow and we’ll be able to sell to other markets as well.
It’s very similar to what’s happening to avocados out of Colombia. Currently most of our avocados are being sold to the European market, and as we have more availability of the product as our crops cross that three-year threshold, we see more and more exports being prepared for the U.S. market.
It’s the same with the yellow pitahaya; the crops are growing, so once we’ve sold the volume Japan and Korea are interested in, we will jump to other markets. We will fortify our presence in Europe, and we hope to have irradiation authorized and that will allow us to come to the U.S. market with the product.
Q: Speaking of the Colombian avocados entering the U.S. market, that was a big news item toward the end of last year with a lot of hype surrounding the entry with large multinational companies bringing that fruit in and introducing Colombia as a new source of origin. Next year the World Avocado Congress is happening in your country, and the season is underway now I believe, so what is your outlook for avos and how they can grow? What sort of feedback are you getting?
A: The crop is definitely growing. Since we started growing Hass avocados in Colombia, the crops were mainly focused on the coffee triangle region, so Medellin and that area of Antioquia, as well as the other coffee triangle states, or departments as we call them.
But more recently, there are new crops being worked on. About one or two years ago, we started working on other areas such as Tolima and Huila. We are definitely growing on the production side more and more, and as that product becomes available for Europe and we feel we need to go into other markets, we will have the ability to go into the U.S.
Hand-in-hand we are working with our regulations agency ICA to have different areas of the country come into the work plan that allows these farms to export to the U.S., and we saw more growers in Colombia applying for permits to use their areas to sell avocados into the U.S.
It is picking up the speed that we projected as more of these farmers are looking into what the requirements are and the systems they need to have in place. Regarding the packing facilities, the ones that are currently authorized are very much ready to send to the U.S. and have experience exporting to other parts of the world.
And as you mentioned, some have partnered with major companies in the U.S. — some of these major companies have invested in partnerships with Colombian companies to help them grow in technology and understanding the U.S. market, and they definitely have imported already, at least their trials.
Something interesting will happen around the Super Bowl actually, which I’m not at liberty to disclose right now but something will happen that is interesting with the product being shipped to the U.S.
Q: But you can mention publicly that something is happening?
A: Yes, it’s nothing spectacular, but one of the major players will start bringing on a more regular basis Colombian avos, starting around the Super Bowl. We expect that will keep on a steadier pace now that they have partnered with this Colombian company.
You mentioned the World Avocado Congress, which we also appreciate and we’d like to use the opportunity to invite everybody at the New York Produce Show who is interested in the industry to come to Medellin in September of 2019, where we will hold the World Avocado Congress. We hope for it to be one of the best, if not the best, there has been so far.
Q: Well, I wish you all the best in that and at the New York Produce Show as well.
A: Thank you.
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