Verfrut launches Peruvian grape project to widen export window
Grape exports in the northern Peruvian region of Piura have doubled annually since 2009, with industry consultancy Inform@cción forecasting it will become the country's leading grape zone in another three years. Part of that growth will no doubt be attributed to Verfrut, which through sister company Rapel SAC has adapted Chilean expertise to the climate with 700 hectares planted and a new packinghouse in Caseria el Papayo. Last week the company invited www.freshfruitportal.com to attend the project launch, where importers and distributors soaked up the sun to witness the type of farming that could well blow many Brazilian competitors out of the picture.
Under a lush canopy of red globes in what is otherwise very dry and dusty terrain, Nevskaya Co commercial director Gennadiy Frenkel discusses the success this variety has had in Russia recently.
"Three years ago altogether there was maybe 50 containers of Peruvian red globes and now it's 250 for the Russian season," he says.
Frenkel emphasizes his experience of grape quality in Piura has been very good in general, but what he notices about Verfrut's project is not just the taste but the sheer size of the operation.
"How long did this all take? Three years?" he asks.
"No," replies a Verfrut sales rep. "Just 1.5 years."
The grape workers continue to blow their horns to scare off the birds, and the hordes of fruit industry representatives hop back into their vans to move on to the next plantation.
Click here to view the photo gallery of the launch.
The Russian fruit buyer's surprise at the short timeframe needed to build an agricultural goldmine in a desert is shared by many at the launch, having arrived from as far as China, the Netherlands and Canada.
Capespan technical manager for South America Claudio Salas, says the growing supply deal from Verfrut will help compensate for limited red seedless volumes coming out of Brazil. He expresses his admiration for the company's executive team for pulling off such a feat, particularly the vision showed by owner Romano Vercellino and general manager Javier Martinez.
"I can tell you that it impresses me a lot, the capacity that Romano has to be a foreigner in Peru and invest in a project like this," Salas says.
His comments are echoed by his colleague, Capespan North America president Mark Greenberg.
"It’s spectacular and amazing to me that this could be conceived of and executed in just two years," he says.
"I’ve never seen any other region in the world that could produce a vine and have such robust looking grapes hanging like this in such a short space of time," adds Greenberg's Canadian compatriot Doug Grant, senior VP at Oppenheimer.
"For the investors in this type of operation, being able to recover your money within three to four years makes a lot of sense as you’ve got reasonable labor, the production as it is, so it’s very attractive to investors so long as pricing holds on."
Visitors seem to be pleased about how projects like this will help ensure the consistency of grape supply during a crucial Northern Hemisphere window, not just because of the condition problems Brazil has been known for and its growing domestic appetite, but also the water and energy crises facing the key early growing region of Copiapó in northern Chile.
"We’re of the view that the product quality and consistency you’ll be seeing out of here in Peru will be superior to that of what you’re going to find in Chile’s north, and the prevailing view is that in the next five to 10 years this will become the first region essentially," says Toronto-based Burnac Produce Ltd Co-CEO Lorne Burnett.
"For us this is really interesting because it prolongs the season, you can have grapes earlier than Ica and we see this as an opportunity to basically no longer have Brazil in the market," says SFI Rotterdam BV managing director Beatrice Betley, who has flown in for her first visit to Peru.
In contrast, C.H. Robinson Worldwide Chile operations manager David Lagunas knows the site well as his company's local branch is helping Verfrut with its logistics to the port of Paita two hours away.
Lagunas is of the view that the grape supply landscape is set to become much more competitive, and Piura has some advantages despite the challenges it must overcome.
"This is completely different to what you see in California, in Chile, in South Africa, where you have a much colder winter where the plants go to sleep; here they don't go to sleep, you have to induce sleep for a little bit to prune, to get rid of the old leaves.
"But in Chile because you have much more time for the plant to rest it can be nourished on time - here you have to avoid the plants getting weaker with time."
Piura is generally known for producing darker color red globes that don't exactly fit with the cherry red profile demanded by Chinese consumers, who have been buying a great deal of the pinker fruit coming out of Ica. However, Guangzhou Jing Long Fresh Fruit Company's Norman Au Ying Tuen says there will be fruit with the right colors for the market, and if it doesn't sell on the Chinese mainland there are options elsewhere in Asia.
"The red globes here are of very good quality, I tried them in the orchards and they were excellent," he says.
More fields coming online
Verfrut commercial manager Ignacio Donoso says the operation will produce 600,000 boxes for the 2012-13 season, which will grow to 1.7 million boxes in 2013-14.
He says there are currently 300ha dedicated to red globes, followed by superior with 170ha, Crimson with 60ha, and Thompson wiith 50ha. The rest of the existing plantings are dedicated to new varieties, including Giumarra's Arra variety.
Out of the fruit currently in production the vast majority are red globes with 80%, followed by Superior (8%), Crimson (7%) and Flame (5%).
He adds there are also 60ha of land dedicated to avocados.
The company's total landholding in the area is 1,600ha and plans are in place to initiate several new stages of production with time. In the long term, Donoso highlights the red globe percentage share will be reduced to 50%, while 40% will be white seedless and 10% will be red seedless.
Verfrut has made a name for itself with production in four regions in Chile, but Peru is very different and has been a rapid learning experience for those involved. While Chile has snow from the Andes mountain range that melts and feeds its streams, Piura is supplied by the distant Amazon Rainforest which has a much more constant supply, albeit still not in very large volumes once it gets to the area.
For this reason Verfrut needs to manage its irrigation carefully and does so through centralized tanks that are supplied by the Curumuy Reservoir, which itself is fed by the Piura River. Donoso says the water in the tanks is filtered for irrigation across the vineyards, and can also be supplied by nutrients from a seperate set of tanks; this is necessary given the sandy make-up of the soil.
Technical advisor Leonardo Vercellino says the whole experience has been new for him in terms of agronomic management.
"The management for table grapes is completely different here compared to Chile - the phytosanitary issues are different, the irrigation is different, nutrition is different, the pruning is different.
"The weather in Piura permanently has high temperatures, from a minimum of 18-20°C (64.4-68°F) to a maximum of 40C (104°F) in the summer. In Chile the seasons are very marked but here it’s basically an eternal summer.
"Here the plant is always green. We have to make an effort to manage the plant so that it drops its leaves, enters a forced recess and starts producing again. This can be done manually or chemically."
As far as chemicals are concerned, while more treatment is needed for powdery mildew than in Chile and there are some different small worms and insects that can attack plants, Vercellino says overall there is less pressure from pests and fungi.
"In Chile the concern is that chemicals are used very close to harvesting, whereas here it is much earlier than the harvest, so the load of chemicals in Piura’s grapes is less than in Chilean fruit.
The advantage of having evergreen plants though is that Verfrut can program its harvest in Piura.
"For example, you have a red globe vine, you prune it and in 135-140 days you are harvesting, for a sugraone/superior in 100 days you are harvesting and for crimsons it's 120-125 so every variety has its period.
"We plan the harvest because if the market needs seedless in November, we will take all the white and red seedless in November. Everything is all programmed, and that’s what the climate allows."
The project is expected to have 4,000-5,000 workers in the peak period.
At the opening ceremony, Romano Vercellino thanks the 350 attendees for sharing in the historic moment.
"Without a doubt this is something very special for Verfrut and particularly for Agricola Rapel,"
Secretary general for El Papayo Jose Eduardo Sanchez Espinosa hails the project as highly beneficial for economic development in the region, while plant workers tell www.freshfruitportal.com they are treated well by Verfrut and are optimistic about opportunities for professional development within the company.