Guatemala has long produced blackberries for the UK market. Local grower-exporter Planesa produces berries over 450ha hectares alone; covering sites within the country itself and in neighbouring Mexico. Much of its supply is destined for the UK but where Planesa has been particularly successful – and what arguably sets it apart from its contemporaries – has been its capacity to carve out a niche in the UK based on constant varietal development and a focus on catering to British consumer tastes
For Planesa, blackberries are the company’s most important export product to the UK market, which it supplies in 125g and 225g punnets before being heat-sealed on delivery.
But at the root of Planesa’s success has been its ability to innovate, according to the company’s Andrea Castañeda. For instance, the company is currently developing a line of blueberries in Guatemala, with a view to targeting the UK.
“At the moment, we are only at the testing stage, but the plan is to reach the UK market with blueberries, while always respecting domestic supply seasons in Europe,” she tells Produce Business UK.
Planesa also has exclusivity in Guatemala and Mexico for a new blackberry variety called Incentive, bred by Plant Sciences, which it views as having a great deal of potential for the UK market in the ‘supersweet’ category. The company has begun to cultivate the variety over 2.4ha, with a view to having some initial volumes available next year.
“It’s in the evolution stage, but it’s a variety that’s very interesting in terms of taste and colour,” says vice-president Roberto Castañeda. “We are working on a number of different varieties with Plant Sciences, but this is one that we are focusing a bit more on, so it has now moved to the semi-commercial stage.”
Planesa is also working closely with the University of Arkansas on developing a number of new blueberry, raspberry and blackberry varieties. Foremost among them the new Prime-Ark 45 blackberry, for which the company has exclusivity to grow in Guatemala.
Maximising production potential
Aside from varietal development, Andrea Castañeda says Planesa is very focused on taking advantage of the range of growing conditions available within Guatemala. The company, she says, is currently testing production at different altitudes, from 900m to 1,800ha, while it is also making use of varying micro-climates in the country.
“Guatemala is a small country with a lot of micro-climates – we are able to play with these varying climates to be able to have production all year round,” she explains.
“Also, because we have quite a stable climate, Guatemala is able to produce berries continuously 365 days a year – for example, if the UK market has a problem with local production or a weather-related issue, we are able to step in immediately and supply them.”
“Having availability year-round has enabled us to be very flexible with our clients – very few countries are able to produce for 365 days a year,” she concludes.
The company’s ‘Tangy’ line of blackberries is another example of Planesa’s innovative edge and evolving offer for UK buyers and consumers. Although the word ‘tangy’ does not appear anywhere on its packaging – rather it’s used for marketing purposes – Roberto Castañeda says it has proven to be a useful promotional tool for the UK market.
“In terms of the acid-sugar balance, these berries are a little more acidic and I think the name ‘tangy’ describes them perfectly,” he explains.
Castañeda notes that the Tangy line – whose name was coined by a UK importer – has proven so popular that Planesa has had to increase production.
“There has been so much demand for this product – including from Sainsbury’s in the UK, which has been experiencing a lot of growth for this part of its offer – that we have had to extend the season,” he reveals.
Early summer window
Planesa maintains a presence as a producer in Guatemala and Mexico, as well as running its own US subsidiary, Pure Fresh, which was founded in 2010 to market the company’s own products in North America.
The UK remains a key destination, however, partly because, according to Andrea Castañeda, it has been able to exploit a supply window between April and early June, when Mexico’s export focus is on the US and the UK domestic season has yet to begin.
“It’s a very good niche with a lot of demand,” she explains. “Every year it’s different because some years it’s early and some it’s late, depending on the climatic conditions, but in general we try and extend it as much as possible.
“Right now, we can supply in April, May, and if we manage it, a little bit of June before domestic [UK] production starts. Obviously when domestic supplies begin, we leave the market.”
Planesa exports some 6,000 tonnes of soft fruit every year from Guatemala and Mexico, and also markets Mexican blackberries – specifically the sweeter Tupi variety – as part of its range of sweet berries for the UK.
The group has been present in the fresh produce sector for over 15 years, beginning life as a raspberry producer, before adding blackberries and – over recent times – moving into blueberry production.
Planesa is also a leading producer of a variety of vegetables, including snow peas, sugar snap peas and courgettes, among other products.