It may be a matter of months – many months for some farms – before Colombian avocado growers can make the most of their newfound market access to the United States.
The reason? Meeting the country’s pest control requirements takes time, while the United States market also requires different specifications in packaging and packhouse operations to the more “comfortable” arrangement shippers have with Europe.
Registered growers need to monitor farms for 12 months to prove they are free of two types of avocado seed weevil (Heilipus lauri Boheman and Heilipus trifasciatus), as well as the avocado seed moth Stenoma catenifer.
“The property or farm monitoring process has already passed the 12 months in most properties, and some of them, a very limited amount, are considered pest-free,” says Pedro Aguilar, a board member of the Colombian Hass Avocado Growers and Exporters Corporation (CorpoHass) and president of Westsole Fruit Colombia.
“Now those properties need to enter the process of determining if their [1km] buffer zones are also in conditions to be considered pest-free,” he adds.
“This could mean that in the next two or three months there could be very few – one, two or three properties – that could meet all the requisites to be certified for exports to the United States market,” he says.
Cartama managing director Ricardo Uribe, who is also a board member at CorpoHass, clarifies the two main properties that are the likely contenders are in the municipality of Pácora, Caldas and in the municipality of San Vicente, Antioquia.
“The idea is to try to form a partnership with one of those properties to be able to take the first exports in the next two months,” says Uribe, whose company is a partner of U.S.-based avocado marketer Mission Produce.
Uribe’s company’s own farms haven’t yet completed the time needed for the pest monitoring plan, but the group is on track to potentially exporting its own production by December or early next year.
“Within Cartama’s own production we are in Caldas and Risaralda, and in six months we’ll be ready ourselves with our own properties.
“We have one of the most prepared packhouses for the American market – we are working arduously to have our packhouse ready for the first exports.”
He highlights that in addition to the aforementioned areas, other Colombian zones in the monitoring plan for avocado exports to the United States include Anserma, Caldas; Guatica and Quinchia, Risaralda; and Salento, Quindio.
Addressing complacency in a Europe-focused industry
Another CorpoHass board member, Juan David Mondragón, says there have also been setbacks in the timeline for some growers who, upon not seeing a final rule from the U.S. earlier, paid less attention to these protocols as they weren’t necessary for an already booming business in Europe.
“There are two or three properties that are very advanced which in one moment had no captures for several months, but pests came back again,” says Mondrágan, who also heads up the company Productora Colombiana de Aguacate Hass (“Colombian Hass Avocado Producer” in English).
“Why did that happen? Because in one sense, as the rule hadn’t appeared there was an alternation in the management and this means that many growers continued thinking about Europe and not about the United States because the final rule hadn’t come out.
“At this moment we at least consider there will be some months – I don’t know whether it’ll be six or 10 months – in which some properties and regions will have to wait to be able to export to the United States.”
The ease with which Colombian growers and exporters can ship to Europe is a double-edged sword for the sector, and for Aguilar the social, more psychological aspect ahead is for CorpoHass to convince growers of the importance of taking on new responsibilities so they can develop the U.S. market.
“We [Westsole] are starting some adjustments in relation to the protection zone to be able to certify ourselves over the course of the next 60 days,” Aguilar says.
“If everything goes well, the rule will be in effect on Sept. 14. We’d like to try to do the first exports via air freight – because there won’t be volume for sea freight – in November.
“That’d be the best scenario. However, there is no guarantee – my purpose at the company is to do at least one shipment before the year ends.”
He says packhouse operators need to be aware that different boxes, weighing 25 pounds each, need to be used for the U.S. market.
“The North American market demands the PLU code with the label on the fruit – we don’t do any packing with that label on the fruit because Europe doesn’t need it.
“And apart from that, the packing plant has to have areas dedicated just to fruit for the U.S. market.”
Mondragón adds the Colombian industry will also be obliged to open up an office in the United States to promote its avocados, similar to bodies representing other Latin American suppliers such as Avocados from Mexico, Avocados from Chile and Avocados from Peru
“We need to give the news of the market opening the greatest importance, and thank the government for all their help, but we have to be aware that the work ahead we need to build is great,” he says.
“Groups like CAIA (Avocados from Chile), Avocados from Peru, Avocados from Mexico, these entities collect resources from the growers and exporters to be able to attend to promotions in the United States market,” adds Aguilar.
“Colombia also will need to create a similar entity which probably we’ll call Avocados from Colombia or something like that, to be able to comply with that requirement.”
Aguilar expects the formation of an Avocados from Colombia-like group will be a “medium-term” project, and while it may not need to be established immediately when only small volumes are sent, it must be taken into consideration by the industry soon.
“We’ll have a transit time which will take some months to generate volume,” he says.
“Once we have generated volume, we’ll be able to attend to the market via sea freight. Once that happens the market will finally take off, and the opportunity will take off.”
He concludes that not only is the U.S. market opening an issue that needs to be taken seriously and capitalized on by the sector, it also opens new pathways for market access negotiations elsewhere in countries like China, Japan, South Korea or elsewhere.
“Those markets normally like to see that the origin already has admissibility in the North American market,” he says.
Photo: Colombian Ministry of Agriculture