The Vergara family has been farming pineapples in Panama for more than 15 years but a new partnership with a fintech firm is giving them fresh hopes for an even brighter future, writes Edna Vergara, CEO of Panama Golden Pineapple.
I began experimenting with exotic fruits and vegetables on our family land in Chorrera, on the outskirts of Panama City, in the early 2000s. Back then, most of the produce was sold at farmers’ markets and the proceeds went back into our small operation.
But we hit pay dirt with the golden pineapple and have been producing premium fruit for the last 17 years. Thanks to our collaboration with more than 50 other local growers, we were able to expand our business, building the first pineapple export facility in Panama and attracting multinational companies.
Recently we partnered with Farmfolio, an agriculture finance company lead by Dax Cooke, to launch a sustainable pineapple operation, Panama Golden Pineapple (PGP) in the hope of spreading our vision of sustainable and profitable pineapple farming. We hope to inspire more smallholder farmers, especially women, to push Panama to the forefront of agricultural exports using climate-smart methods.
This partnership sits with one of our biggest hopes: to grow the farm year after year in production volume so we can double its production capacity within five years. Currently, we are evaluating land purchases next to the farm and leasing additional land to build this volume slowly.
We also want to continue to be a leading force in sustainable pineapple production in Panama by implementing techniques that are not common in standard pineapple production. Practices such as placing mulch plastic over pineapple bedding, reducing erosion, and reducing irrigation hours, as well as practising low tillage are techniques that help the farm be more sustainable in the long run. Moreover, they are also good business as customers are looking for not just good agricultural practice standards, but sustainable ones too.
Simultaneously, we are looking to expand our air shipping business out of Panama. There are some very important logistical advantages in Panama and we want to keep building on them to develop deeper ties with markets in Europe and Asia.
It’s not always easy. At any farm, there are always challenges with getting enough manual labour for different operations. And some operations within the pineapple harvest cycle are almost impossible to automate, like the planting process.
However, the harvesting and unloading of the pineapple at the packhouse can be automated. So, we are reviewing some harvesting equipment for purchase in 2019 as well as a special automated bin system to unload fruit at the packhouse.
Personnel turnover at the farm, although not high at the moment, is always concern as we get larger in size and scope. New social and corporate responsibility programs are being analyzed to further ensure the retention of our valuable team, including having an in-house cook for employee breakfasts and increasing the involvement of workers’ families in the agro-tourism business so that they can also receive some benefit from those activities.
At the moment, work at the farm begins with the morning distribution of personnel to different areas including the passion fruit fields and the mango orchards as well as the fields of guava, star fruit, dragon fruit, pineapples, and plantains. These crews deploy throughout different fields verify the cleanliness of the areas and engage in weeding work to ensure that we maintain a neat farm all year long.
Other members of the farm team visit the chicken houses and report to their supervisor about ongoing activities as well as inquire about any additional materials or resources that might be needed. After the morning check-up some members of the farm team head to the local hardware store and purchase any materials that the farm might require.
Every day the key members of the farm team meet with Paul Vergara, the COO, who also visits different section of the farm to monitor progress.
But as well as running the farm, we also take part in numerous activities at a national level. Every other week, we attend Non-Traditional Exporters Association (GANTRAP) meeting in Panama City as well as the Panama Exporters Association (APEX) meeting.
Paul and I are also consultants for the Panamanian government’s Promagro committee and MICI CEFA committee. And we also host agro-tourism groups at the farm and teach them about sustainable agricultural development.
What we’d like to see from the government is greater incentives for exporters to produce through increased exporter tax reductions. These credits are usually in the form of cash or subsidies for produce sold internationally. Keeping this program alive and expanding it is key to exporters to compete with lower cost exporting countries, like neighbouring Costa Rica.
And we hope that the government creates an efficient migrant worker system, so that we can grow the farm beyond our current goal of 100 hectares. If such a program granting flexibility to worker migration laws came in place during the next few years, farming in Panama could grow significantly, rivalling neighbours like Costa Rica and Colombia.
We have come a long way since our first harvest of pineapples. But we have high hopes for the future, both for us and for Panamanian agriculture.