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HLB Specialties first to market with organic large papayas

HLB Specialties, a leading specialty produce grower-packer-shipper with an emphasis on papayas, now has the ability to offer organic large papayas in commercial volumes.

According to Homero Levy de Barros, president of the Pompano Beach, FL-based company, it is the first time organic large papayas are available for retail programs. The key, he said, is an affiliation with an experienced grower who produces them in an arid environment in Mexico.papayaHLB Specialties, based in Pompano Beach, FL, is now marketing organic large papayas, a first in the industry, following an extensive four-year study of growing the fruit in an arid environment in Mexico.

“The normal environment for growing papayas is 80 percent humidity, but that is also ideal conditions for growing fungus,” said Levy de Barros. “By growing them in the desert, we eliminate those conditions that cause fungus. But you really need a grower with the proper knowledge and expertise to do this right.”

Levy de Barros said HLB has been working with its grower in Mexico for the past five years to refine the process of growing organic papayas. In addition to his growing expertise, the grower also has a business that supplies organic fertilizers and nutrients for other crops, so he is well equipped to provide a consistent supply of organic product.

“After looking at the data about the strong growth of organics, we decided we wanted to explore if it was possible to produce commercial volumes with our grower,” said Levy de Barros. “I told our grower I wanted to do it for a year before we start marketing the papayas as organic. Once we completed the year and everything was working well, we decided to make the investment of getting the certifications and converting the packinghouse to be in compliance with organic standards.”

Levy de Barros said HLB now has organic certifications for both the United States and Europe so it can sell to both continents. He said in the United States, the organic papayas should fetch a 25 percent premium over conventional fruit, which is not very much considering the time, effort and expense that goes into raising an organic papaya crop.

“Papayas are an extremely challenging crop to grow,” he said. “What you do in the morning Mother Nature destroys at night. You can lose an entire crop if the papaya plants’ roots are in water for 36 hours, so a hurricane or heavy rains can cause a complete loss. And it will happen at some point — it’s inevitable.

“As a papaya grower, you have to be stable enough to have a reserve in order to recover from losses,” Levy de Barros continued. “With the average value of a hectare of papayas at $25,000, a 100-hectare farm could suffer a $2.5 million loss. It’s an experienced and stable grower that can recover from that loss — it’s really what separates the professionals from the amateurs.”

While Levy de Barros acknowledges that not everyone will pay the premium for an organic papaya, he believes there is a market for it among the organic enthusiasts, and the key to driving sales is education.

“We have been selling more conventional papayas year after year,” he said, “so I truly believe that we can grow organic sales once we start educating people about how good the fruit is. Our large papayas, which are the Tainung variety originally from Taiwan, are different than the other large papaya variety, the Maradol. While the Maradol has a very strong aroma that turns some people off, the Tainung does not have that aroma and is a much sweeter piece of fruit. So it is part of our investment to make consumers aware of the differences and the advantages of our papayas.

“Also, we need to educate both the consumer and retailers about when the Tainung variety is ready to eat,” Levy de Barros added. “Unlike the Maradols, which need to be completely yellow before they are ripe, the Tainung is ready at 50 percent color. Actually, anything beyond 50 percent and the sugars start to ferment and become bitter.”

HLB has designed an organic papaya project that has the ability to supply several retail programs simultaneously. But depending on demand, Levy de Barros said volume can be increased relatively quickly.

“Papaya is a fairly fast crop to produce,” he said. “We can start cropping new areas in a period of eight months. If the demand is there, we can adjust plantings to meet demand in a relatively short time.”

He also said that like all of their conventional papayas, no GMOs or irradiation are used in the organic fruit. And everything is completely traceable back to the field.

“You have to offer full traceability these days if you want to be in business,” said Levy de Barros. “What’s more, we have a social responsibility program in place to verify that we treat the workers well and pay them a fair wage. Many of the retailers require that now before they will buy from you. Also, papayas require a fair amount of expertise by the harvest crew, because the fruit is picked according to the color, so we want to pay them fairly to retain them, otherwise they might go to harvest another crop.”