Chefs and a Puerto Rican mango farmer face similar challenges and opportunities while operating their businesses.
By Lisa Parrish, GMC Editor
Chefs, can you picture this?
You own a luncheonette that’s open one hour each day and is sporadically, wildly popular. Customers flock to your counter roughly three times a week and order your special. Some customers like their meal cooked extremely rare while others order it well done. How do you plan your business with variables such as limited operating hours, sporadic customer surges, fluctuating cooking time, all the while keeping customers’ needs forefront?
To find the answer, you might take a page from the operations playbook of Puerto Rico mango farmer Veny Marti, owner of Martex Farms.
To understand the unique challenges of mango farming, one must first understand how to cook with mangos. Mangos begin their ripening process in a hard, high-starch stage – think pale yellow potato. Immature mangos are commonly used in recipes such as Pico de Gallo or Asian-inspired dishes. As the mango matures through it’s five ripening stages, the fruit’s internal flesh changes color to a deeper yellow, becomes softer and its Brix degree score (or sweetness level) increases. Mangos in the fully ripe stage can be used in smoothies, sauces and desserts. (See the Mango Maturity and Ripening Guide.)
“It’s a very versatile fruit,” said Marti, whose family has been commercially farming Keitt mangos since the early ‘90s. His customers purchase mangos in different quantities throughout the various ripening stages.
Another challenge faced by the second-generation farmer is that he is like David growing mangos in a sea of Goliath farmers. Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island 100 miles long by 35 miles wide. He manages more than 5,000 acres, which is considered large by Island standards but small compared to other growers. His competitors are large producers from Peru, Ecuador and Mexico who do not have to meet the high standards set by the US government.
So, how does Marti operate a successful mango farm? He knows how to compete in this market.
“I offer consistency and in foodservice, consistency is key,” explained Marti. On the south-central coast of the island, his farm is situated in a dry micro climate on sandy soil with ideal temperatures and plentiful clean water from the mountains. This combination allows Marti to harvest year-round, which is very different than the shorter three-month or less harvesting period of his competitors in other countries.
“There are specific weather patterns,” he said. “Some mangos (in the US market) come from Ecuador. But, if it rains during their harvesting time, it’s over. Then, it (the demand for mangos) moves to Peru from January through March. After that, mangos typically come from Mexico.” It’s during these gaps in market production, when mangos are finishing in one country before the next country is fully producing, that Marti has found his niche. “We may be small volume (compared to larger growers from bigger countries) but we market in specific, big windows,” he said.
“For our customers, we offer the same mangos coming from the same farmer from the same region,” Marti continued. “We feel this is value added.”
In addition to Puerto Rico’s ideal climate, mangos trees are tropical trees that are hurricane and typhoon resistant. “In Puerto Rico, wild mango trees growing on the roadside can get as tall as 40 feet and as wide as 20 feet,” explained Marti. “We trim our trees at 14 feet tall and a spread of eight to 10 feet. We prune the trees to keep them manageable.”
The benefits of a sturdy mango grove became obvious on Sept. 24, 2017 when Hurricane Maria’s eye struck Puerto Rico about 1.5 miles north of Martex farms. “We had between 120 and 150 mph winds for eight hours,” Marti recalled. Maria is regarded as the worst natural disaster on record to affect Puerto Rico with nearly 3,000 people killed.
“We lost two percent of our trees and the other 98 percent were damaged,” Marti said. “We have been working day and night to bring the grove back to its normal state prior to the hurricane. It’s the human touch. In 25 to 30 years, we’ve learned how to manage the orchards.” Marti is looking forward to the 2019 season where he is expecting to export 1.5 million boxes of mangos, which are 8.8 pounds each.
Part of keeping up with the demand is understanding how the market has changed through the years since his dad started the farm as a hobby in 1989. “The mango market has changed drastically. We had to adapt to stay in business,” he said. Marti gives the example of how during the 1990s everyone wanted to buy a red mango that looked much like a red delicious apple. “It’s so much better now as customers care about a better flavor profile. The only thing that is the same today is that it’s still a mango. Everything else has changed.”