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Offshore produce industry standing the test of time

by Tad Thompson | January 24, 2011
The U.S. government formally launched the unilateral Caribbean Basin Initiative in 1984. President Ronald Reagan's goal was to counter the appeal of communism in Central America and the Caribbean islands by bolstering the economies of the countries in those regions.

The theory was that if people were profitably employed they would be disinterested in taking up arms to effect a change of government. Given the region’s climate and geographic resources, agricultural development was a natural focus.

Agronomists and ag marketing specialists were paid well to visit all corners of the area. These specialists carried business cards bearing a litany of acronyms that all ultimately were funded by Uncle Sam.

It benefited from the abundance of foreign development money to tour many of these sites, meet countless growers and see their projects.

All these years later, at industry events — particularly Agritrade, which will again be held in Antigua, Guatemala, March 17-18 — many familiar, but increasingly lined, faces will be present.

The businesses of these people, who are predominantly men, have greatly matured. There is a never-ending interest in developing direct sales to buyers in the United States. Some of those deals have occurred. But the formula of exporting to marketing agencies in south Florida has endured since the initiative was launched.

The refrigerated ocean container steamship line, Crowley Holdings Inc., indicates in the Jan. 31-Feb. 14 issue of The Produce News that it brings 600 containers a week from the Caribbean in its peak shipping season, which is now.

Those are staggering numbers of fresh produce imports. And those are the numbers of just one shipping line.

Crowley and this industry segment enjoy a 12-month deal. Guatemala’s volcanoes provide many elevations and microclimates. This — and the country’s countless skilled manual laborers — never cease to keep North American produce departments green.

There are obvious merits in growing produce for export in the Caribbean basin.

Would the offshore industry have developed professionally with simply the entrepreneurial leadership of that region’s businessmen? Most certainly. Was the United States taxpayers’ investment well-spent? The international development efforts undoubtedly expedited what would likely have transpired independently.

Whatever the background, it is exciting to see the maturation of a young industry, in which businesses are filling consumer needs with healthy, safe products.