Organics Unlimited increases banana plantings despite tight competition
San Diego-based fruit grower and distributor Organics Unlimited has been able to lift its banana volumes thanks to new plantings in Colima, Mexico, offering more fruit year-round to the North American marketplace as well as new customers in Japan.
Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal during the Produce Marketing Association's (PMA) Fresh Summit convention in New Orleans last month, Organics Unlimited CEO Mayra Velazquez de Leon said the increase gave the company room to secure new contracts while also building on contracts with existing buyers.
"There is some that’s already in production and then there’s additional land that’s going to be coming into production in 2018. We’re transitioning some of the land into organics – it doesn’t happen right away," the executive said, adding the expansion also included more plantain production.
"And we've only just started selling our bananas in Japan in September as well; the buyers had come over to see how the program was handled with TIF (Transparency International Foundation), and they went to the farms and visited Project Amigo down in Suchitlán."
Oster & Associates president Bev Oster, who handles marketing for Organics Unlimited, said Project Amigo has a lot of social programs in Mexico and is a "very large recipient" of funds from the company's GROW label, which stands for the program "Giving Resources and Opportunities to Workers".
Currently the company sells 80% of its bananas with the GROW label, which requires rigorous third-party auditing across a range of social and environmental metrics, while all fruit is organic-certified and GlobalG.A.P.-certified.
"We’ve really expanded where the money goes for GROW - we’ve got the Japanese additional input that goes into the GROW fund from the Japanese sales, but there are more and more programs we’re focusing on ," Oster added.
"There are the educational programs which we’re continuing with, there are more health programs that tie in with diabetes care and prevention in Mexico, and high blood pressure issues in Mexico."
Velazquez de Leon mentioned disaster relief funding was also fairly new as well, and is the result of a decision made after Hurrican Patricia in 2015.
"We decided it would be a good idea to get a portion of the GROW fund and put it aside for disaster relief so that there wasn’t a big approval process to go through so you could help someone when they needed help rather than having to go through a lot of bureaucracy," said Oster.
"We started to use it with Houston and for the earthquakes in Mexico. This is the first time we’re using it and we’re using it everywhere," added Velazquez de Leon.
"We sell very little in Houston, we don’t get anything from Mexico City, but we’re in a global market so if we can use those funds to help other people that’s okay," she added.
Another GROW project in the works is an initiative aimed at helping bees to survive.
"Bees are abandoning the beehives and the queen, and pollination is important for the produce and human beings," Velazquez de Leon said.
"If we don’t take care of that we’re not going to have any food. We’re trying to find the right non-profits that do a good job – I want to make sure they’re doing the right job and this is going to be globally, not only in Mexico and the States, but anywhere.
"Bees are dropping dead because of certain insecticides, and instead of getting rid of insecticides people are talking about robotic bees?"
Another new development is the installation of solar panels to power 70% of Organics Unlimited's energy usage of its warehouse in San Diego.
When asked about the organic market more broadly, she said the challenge was now greater than ever.
"That's mainly because we have all those big players in the organic industry trying to push the price down when costs are going up," she said.
"But competition is competition, so they’re pushing prices to come down on bananas and we have to be more cost effective when it comes to production."
She also touched on a growing perception amongst many industry professionals and consumers that regulations were tightening so much on conventional production that it was getting very close to organic production anyway.
"I think that's a marketing tool to say 'we’re getting close to organic, you really don’t need to buy organic'," she said.
"We've talked about multinationals getting into the organic industry; they either get close to growing naturally or they’re out of the market, because everybody wants to be going that route of eating organic. It's all about sustainability," she said.
Oster added her perspective on the issue.
"You don’t have to have a second class product because it’s organic; the product is as good or better in terms of the taste, the look and quality.
"It just doesn’t have the chemicals in it. With bananas there are people who will say you don’t need to buy organic because it has the peel. But the chemicals get into the product itself, it’s not just on the skin through spraying on the outside.
"When you're looking at sustainability you're looking at the workers and the way this is grown in the communities. And when you look at the health benefits to the workers and the ones who are growing your product, there’s a vast difference.
"There are a lot of health issues in conventionally-grown banana communities, and you don’t get those kind of health issues in organics."