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Just-in-time fruit

When Felipe Reyes and Osvaldo Moizo formed a partnership in the early 1980s to grow apples and pears in the Melilla region near the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo, they never imagined that they would have to compete with producers around the world.

But with the 1990s came the new era of open markets, when even medium-scale farmers like Reyes and Moizo would have to keep up with the latest technical innovations and consumer demands. If their 39-hectare farm, called Zanja Honda, were to succeed, they would have to learn about the best crop varieties and the latest production systems, and search out buyers at home and abroad.

Luckily, one of the world’s premier fruit producing countries was practically next door, so Reyes and Moizo traveled to Chile on a fact-finding mission. Back home they applied what they learned with such success that their operation caught the attention of officials in Uruguay’s Ministry of Agriculture who were running a new initiative called the Program for Farm Conversion and Development (PREDEG). The IDB-financed program was established to provide technical assistance and marketing support to small and medium-size farms, such as Zanja Honda, as well as to agroindustries and nurseries.

That same year, PREDEG awarded Reyes and Moizo a prize for innovation and quality, particularly citing their success in integrating production and marketing. "These producers stand out for their technological capabilities as well as for their business management," declared Carlos Sammarco, PREDEG chief, at the awards ceremony.

Encouraged, Reyes and Moizo set out to change over from the traditional orchards to high-density plantings with quick-growing, early-ripening varieties that would result in higher yields and less damaged fruit. With financing from PREDEG, Reyes and Moizo traveled to Italy, France and Spain to learn about new fruit varieties with the best flavor, color and texture, and get a feel for potential markets. "The trip marked the starting point for a new approach to raising fruit, a trip to the future," recalled Reyes. "The fruit producer of the future is the person who can rapidly adapt to change with new varieties and cutting-edge production systems. It is the only way," he added.

Soon, the two partners had joined a group of other Uruguayan farmers to import 12,000 Australian hybrid apple plants from a supplier in Brazil. Called "Pink Lady," the crisp, flavorful new variety was specifically developed for high-density planting and early maturity.

"Things are changing so fast that in two years we won’t have any fruit trees left that we had when we won the PREDEG prize," said Reyes. The full-size apple trees used in years past were spaced the traditional distance apart and would begin producing fruit after five years at the rate of 15 boxes per tree. With the new variety, 15 small, early-maturing trees are planted in the same space that would have been taken by a single tree in the previous production system. Each new tree produces one box of fruit at much lower cost and higher quality in a shorter period of time.

"It is incredible, but the apples that I have on my table today are the first fruit from a tree we planted three months ago," said Reyes. But while the Pink Lady variety is well received by growers and consumers alike, it comes with strings attached. Royalities must be paid to the Australian Ministry of Agriculture for each tree purchased. Further payments must go to the Pear and Apple Export Association of Australia for each apple sold. But by using the latest varieties and production systems, Reyes and Moizo have met the competitive challenge.

The PREDEG program that helped Reyes and Moizo to compete came at a crucial moment for Uruguay. "Our farm sector was lagging," said Sammarco, "and after our domestic producers lost tariff protection, they became vulnerable to competition, particularly from neighboring countries."

PREDEG currently works with some 3,000 farmers organized into 260 producers’ groups along with 900 individual fruit producers. It provides the farmers with training and cofinances innovative operations, such as the establishment of new plantings and drip irrigation systems. The program also provides technical assistance and marketing support to some 30 agroindustrial firms and commercial agents and 25 nurseries. In a pilot program that now includes some 200 producers, PREDEG is helping farmers to reduce the use of agrochemicals by introducing alternative disease-control methods.


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