Brazil's Farms Surmount Obstacles To Export Exotic Specialty Foods

THE color recalls a maritime sunset, with shades of pink, orange, and red. Hanging on small trees in this region's dry sandy soil, the exotic acerola, or ``cherry of the Antilles'' beckons the taste buds. The Japanese are said to rave about this fruit, which has 28 times as much Vitamin C as an orange. The flavor is somewhere between a cherry and a cranberry, delicious. The acerola plantation belongs to Maisa Ind'ustria e Comercio, part of a company that discovered the agricultural potential of Brazil's arid northeastern lands, via irrigation, when building a road through the region 20 years ago.

Today, Maisa is one of a small but growing group of Brazilian businesses that, despite competition, foreign import rules, and local inflation, are going to extra lengths to please sophisticated consumers abroad. The businesses hope to strengthen export income by better using their resources and new technologies.

Commodity innovations

``There are innovations appearing in the market, people who add value to a product. We used to export coffee, sugar, and cacao separately,'' says Ledio Rocha, director of the animal and vegetable department of the federal Commercial Interchange Agency, CIC. ``Now, importers want us to mix the three and sell it as one product. These types of products are appearing more and more. They renew trade.''

Specialty fruits such as acerola have already become an important part of Brazil's fruit exports, which totaled $56 million last year. Of this, about $30 million came from unusual tropical items, according to CIC. ``We could export three times the amount of fruit, in dollars, that we do now,'' Mr. Rocha says.

Jos'e Marcelo Barroso, Maisa's sales director, says the Japanese buy acerola frozen whole, and make vermouth, candies, and jams out of it. Maisa only discovered acerola three years ago, but hopes to have 1,500 acres planted with it by the end of this year.

Maisa is also investing in irrigating grapes, mangoes, kiwis, litchi nuts, and passion fruit, and is experimenting with dwarf cashew trees that might be more productive than normal-size ones. And a year ago, a cashew nut processing plant began perfuming the premises with the delicious smell of cashews being heated in their own oil, for shelling. Brazil's biggest cashew customer is Planter's, based in the United States.

The new trend includes high-ticket seafood. Empesca, one of Brazil's two biggest seafood exporters, is investing in Japan's unique preference for ready-to-eat whole lobsters. Empesca sends out smaller lobster boats that will do short, 15-day trips and bring the lobsters ashore to be cooked and frozen. Normally, lobster fishermen stay at sea from 40 to 60 days. Last year, Brazil shipped 11 percent of its $50 million lobster exports to Japan, up from 5 percent in 1989.

``The Japanese demand certain types of products and are willing to pay more,'' says Jos'e Mario Gomes de Carvalho, the company's founder and owner.

Still, Brazil's biggest market is the US, which took 85 percent of the 1990 catch. ``I sold 12 million lobster tails [there] last year,'' boasts Mr. Gomes. Much of this went to the US restaurant chain, Red Lobster. Empesca also exports catfish to the US.

In central-south Brazil, the Andrade family, which owns Brazil's top construction company, has picked out a new coffee trend. ``The future of coffee is to get out of the commonplace commodity market and exploit the trend of the demand for quality,'' says owner Eduardo Bueno Andrade. ``The consumer already chooses his coffee by region. So the next step is to choose within each region, by producer. We want to link up with the consumer. If the consumer wants, he can come to visit the farm.''

High-quality coffee

Mr. Andrade spent three years planning his 520-acre Vista Alegre farm, in Jaboticatubas, Minas Gerais, and spent $5 million on it. Noting that much Brazilian coffee is of low quality because rain-wet berries transmit a bitter taste to the seed, or bean, he sought out land with little rainfall and decided to irrigate. That allowed him the luxury of allowing the berries to dry on the branch, and pick up every last nutrient available from the soil, fertilizer, and sun, instead of picking the berries early and drying them off the plant. His farm also maps plant pests and diseases weekly, using a computer, a novelty in Brazil. Having sold some small quantities of coffee last year to Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation, a trading company, Vista Alegre now plans to export under its own brand name and hopes to crack the US market.

In addition to unstable prices for buyers, these ambitious Brazilian exporters face tough competition from all over the world. Chile, for example, has been exporting high-quality fruit to the US for 20 years or so, has much better technology than Brazil, and is the only South American nation free of the fruit fly.

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