Panama pineapple exports set to double
Currently, the government pays 3 cents for every kilogram of pineapples which leave the country.
Panama has 3,500 hectares devoted to pineapples compared with Costa Rica's 50,000 hectares and has only started exporting in the last six to eight years.
But, growers such as Verba Fruit believe Panama can punch significantly above its weight providing fruit which is sweeter and has minimum pesticide levels.
President Paul Vergara said the fact the country has hillier terrain than Costa Rica's flat plains is a significant advantage.
"The problem with flat land is it's good for production and picking but it's easy to have water accumulation which increases moisture and leads to more pests. We have hilly land so the water rolls off."
He added Costa Rica's pineapple industry is several decades older so many of the pests have become resistant to initial pesticides forcing the country to use different chemicals compared to Panama.
Vergara said Verba Fruit followed global GAP certification rules on pesticide use but in reality used very low levels.
Panama's most common variety, Golden, is the same cultivar as Costa Rica's but Vergara said his country's version is sweeter with brix levels exceeding 13.5 and reaching up to 18.
His company is currently diversifying selling its La Dona de Panama label to medium-sized U.S. retailers on the West Coast, in addition to supplying Verba Fruit's long-term client Fyffes.
"There are a lot of small regional chains where we can develop relationships. The color of our fruit is better as well as sweeter. We may be a smaller producer than Costa Rica but we are a viable alternative."
He added that Panama's stricter labor laws with a higher minimum wage than Costa Rica's made it an ethical option.
Costa Rica, in the past, has gained negative pubilicity over the management of its pineapple industry with allegations of labor abuse, unacceptably high levels of pesticides and environmental degredation.
"The multi-nationals came into Costa Rica, they bought land and prompted rapid growth of the industry. I don't think this will ever happen in Panama. "
"We cultivate a range of different fruit and our agricultural system is more diversified. We will never have big production like them - land are values are rising rapidly as the country's economy takes off."
However, large fruit industry players like Fyffe have set up their own pineapple farms in the country over the last two years as well as continuing to buy fruit from major packhouse companies, such as Verba.
One drawback for Panama is the government's limit on the ratio of nationals versus migrant employees which is currently 10 to 1.
"We have 240 employees and we have tried to get the government to put together a migrant worker system, without one this will be a major limitation to growing the industry."
Vergara sees frozen exports as a major avenue to explore extending shelf-life for up to six months which would make shipments to locations such as Asia, possible.
Verba Fruit has its own pineapple farm and a packhouse serving seven other growers and has been growing the fruit for the last 13 years. Europe was its largest export market but in the last year this has changed with the U.S. accounting for 70% of shipments and Europe 30%.
Photo: Verba Fruit