The expansion of the Panama Canal, as well as Panama's status as an increasingly popular upscale tourism destination and haven for U.S. retirees, represents a timely and significant export opportunity for Florida growers.
That's why Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam led a trade mission to Panama in late January that aims to capitalize on current potential for expanded exports of Florida products.
The primary goals of the mission were to assess Panama as an export market and the expansion of the Panama Canal in terms of how it will impact expanded trade in the region and as far away as Asia.
"One specific goal was to talk to wholesalers and supermarkets to determine what kinds of U.S. agricultural products, and more specifically what kinds of perishable Florida products, were in the marketplace or have the potential for expanded exports there," said Richard Gaskalla, director of the Division of Plant Industry at Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "We also wanted to talk to officials about the expansion of the Panama Canal and how that might be a game-changer for world trade."
Expansion of the canal expands export opportunities throughout Central and South America and also to Asia, Gaskalla said. "And that's important," he said, "because we already send a lot of grapefruit to Asia."
Led by Putnam, the Florida contingent included Gaskalla and FDACS marketing experts Dan Sleep, Deb May and Marisol Alvares. Growers were represented by Robert Behr, chief operating officer of Florida's Natural Growers; Joel Sellers, international sales manager for
Florida's Natural Growers, and Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms.
Wishnatzki, the third generation operator Wish Farms, a major producer of Florida strawberries and blueberries, said what he learned on the trip educated him about the extent of import opportunities for Florida growers.
"The trip really opened my eyes, especially when I went to some of the supermarkets in Panama, including some of the high-end supermarkets," Wishnatzki said. "And I was very surprised to see the limited availability of fresh berries. I would have thought before going there that they are readily available, whether that's U.S. berries to things like blueberries from Chile when their season gets going."
Panama does have some local strawberry production. "But their local berries don't hold a candle to what we produce," Wishnatzki said.
Despite obvious shortages of fresh berries, Gaskalla said, Panamanian supermarkets are every bit as good as U.S. stores.
"When you go into a supermarket in Panama City, you don't know whether you're in Jacksonville or Panama City," he said. "The quality of the supermarkets themselves is every bit as good as you see in the U.S. And the shelves are filled with high-quality products. But there were no strawberries and no blueberries. So we definitely checked the box that says there's an opportunity for us to fill that niche."
That assumption was corroborated by several wholesalers they met with. "They expressed definite interest in getting those products in the stores because they are in high demand," Gaskalla said.
However, Wishnatzki said, after receiving his first order for strawberries as a result of the trip, he discovered one reason why the shortages exist.
"Part of it is the logistics of getting things there," he said. "We've been trying to get our first shipment of strawberries there and there are just a lot of hurdles with the Panamanian government. They're just very rigid about what they let in - much more so than the U.S. is about bringing in imports."
Wishnatzki said he has been surprised by the difficulty. "For example, we ship products to Canada all the time and we also ship blueberries to additional countries," he said. "And it's usually not as difficult as we've found it to be in Panama so far."
FDACS has been assisting Wishnatzki in resolving the challenges.
"It's always been our experience that when you enter a new market, you need to learn the do's and don'ts and what they expect," Gaskalla said. "And how to overcome any hurdles. But once you overcome those things initially, it's not that difficult to ship."
That turned out to be true for Wish Farms. Wishnatzki learned that his initial shipment was held up because he needed a special import permit that would override rules related to pest risks from Florida.
"FDACS says it should be smooth going now," Wishnatzki said.
In the long run, he thinks the greatest market potential in Panama is for blueberries. "I think there's going to be a good blueberry market there in the future, simply because they don't have them now," he said. "There's a void in the marketplace."
He said he also expects that expansion of the Panama Canal will help him export more products to the Far East and Middle East.
He gave high praise to Putnam for his innovative ideas about how to promote and expand Florida agriculture.