Argentina, home to the Latin Caper
Until the early nineties, capers were not harvested in all of South America. It took one pioneer, Dr Ángel Rico, to decide to cultivate capers on his salinised and unproductive fields of Santiago del Estero, to grow them.
Today, almost 30 years later, a score of Argentine producers are betting on these rustic plants for their livelihood, a plant so old and mysterious it even manages to display its wonder by clinging to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
How the story begins
In 1992, pediatrician Rico wondered what to do with a 35-hectare arid field in Santiago del Estero. Today, its capers are in the gondolas of important Argentine supermarkets: Italian, Spanish and international food restaurants, pizza chains … “We did everything in the Santiago way, slowly but surely,” he jokes. The search for caper seeds was a long journey that took me to Spain and Italy. I was sure that it would be a good alternative in the impoverished lands of our province, with unfavorable climatic conditions and a large unemployed workforce ”.
The cultivation of capers is presented as an optimal option when it comes to profitability. It adapts to different types of climates and soils (someone said it was an all-terrain plant), it is an intensive crop and does not need special machinery.
Capers are flower buds that have a lifespan of more than 80 years. As an adult, that is, from the fourth year, it can produce between 10 and 15 kilos per plant, obtaining a minimum yield per hectare of 25 thousand kilos. This makes it especially profitable for those who do not have large surfaces.
Each season lasts during the hot months and Argentina is presented as an ideal production scenario since here it has all the conditions of climate, soil and labor to develop the crop, being able to point to being a purely exporting country .
Capers of a Childhood
“Last year I harvested my first capers but I keep them like gold on cloth because they are the first to be grown in the Calchaquíes Valleys and I don’t even eat them”,
jokes Andrés Pérez with the Spanish accent that he brought from his native Almería, where he grew up walking among wild capers. According to the Orígenes SRL nursery in Santiago del Estero, the only one that markets caper seedlings in South America, there are 20 small producers in Argentina ( as in 2009 ) with different scales and experience. One of the best is that of Pérez, who saw the similarity between the semi-arid soil of Almería and Los Valles.
“Then three crops came to my head: the caper, the almond tree and the saffron. Capers need many light-hours, cold winters …. So I bought a farm and I live here, which for me is the best area in South America to grow it ”, says Andrés without hesitation who 30 years ago was dazzled by Argentina.
“In a couple of months the plants are going to be beautiful. I have 3 has. planted to test. This year we are going to plant 30 hectares. with other producers and next year we will do a project for 200 hectares.
“At the beginning I was considered a madman to bring caper seeds because I was convinced that the land was suitable” he says without hiding pride. “And I found another madman like me, Dr. Rico, on the Internet ”.
“As it is a new crop, the farmers in the area are a little on the lookout to see ‘how the Galician is doing.’ I understand them because the initial investment is a bit expensive. In a 2 x 2.50 m frame, the total investment is around 25 thousand $ per hectare. When I plant again, I will do it with higher density, leaving 1.5 m between each plant to make better use of the land and avoid its diversification … in this case it would be about 55 thousand $ per ha. ” “I have my own conviction that there is a lot of demand in the world, I know that we are not going to be able to fully supply it. When I advise someone to plant, it is because I did it first, because it really is a good business ”, he concludes.
“We were looking for a venture with a tempting profitability,” says architect Margarita Santander, who together with her husband Jorge Lorefice inherited a farm where they grow quinces and as of three years ago ( 2006 ), also capers. “We harvested the first 120 kg, to which we added value by making dehydrated powder, a product that does not exist in the market. The demand is so great that it quickly rises.
” The average price per kg. of powder is 100 $. But the plant is not always off-road. The producers reiterate that the most important care is the transport of the seedlings, to start with the right foot. “I advise going to look for them personally and not through other companies. They took my pallets apart and treated them very badly.”
“Another important care once the plant is planted is to protect it from the wind. We invented our own protection: transparent plastic bottles that we cut off at the ends and put around the little plant. This way the plant gets ventilation and is protected from the low wind “, advises the entrepreneur.
Ants are another problem. Although the adult plant does not have pest problems, when it is tender it attracts vermin from the field. “It is necessary to eradicate all the ant hills. It must be watered twice a week at the beginning. In the first year a weekly irrigation is enough. Then the plant itself goes looking for water in the land,” he says.
Fungi and Diseases
Rico has been working with capers “since 1992 with nurseries of his own creation that are adapted almost exclusively to these plants. In addition, they have cement floors and trays, and a drainage designed to water the pots by immersion, preventing the appearance of fungi and diseases so that in this way, the plant grows faster ”.
The producer even has his own variety, AR1, registered and of his own. “It is a variety without thorn, resistant to diseases and water stress
Capers are plants with a very large thermal range between -12°C at the lowest and 55°C degrees at the other extreme. But the climate is not a determining factor for their growth. The one important thing to be taken into account has to do with the soil: the plants should not be flooded.
It is a crop that tolerates poor and saline soils, although, in normal soils, plant growth and production is optimal since nitrogen favors vegetative development and potassium and phosphorus stimulate flowering.
Hail – Frost
As in almost all crops, the seedlings need to be protected from frost and hail. In the event of hail, the plant can completely or partially defoliate, reappearing shortly from its neck. The same situations usually occur in frost as in hail, withstanding very low temperatures in winter. However, it is advisable to protect the seedlings at the beginning of the plantation.
Once grown, they are strong and resistant to inclement weather. No tools of any kind are needed. Care is minimal and it also has a low water requirement when they are adults. With this crop the keywords are: luminosity and heat.
It is advisable to plant leaving a distance of 4 meters between each plant to achieve 600 plants per hectare. The first year, the plant needs part-time care: clean the seedlings, water them and prevent them from getting weedy.
An adult plant can produce a minimum of 10 to 15 kilos per season and are traded in bulk at a price in USD. Even in the first months of implantation, the first capers are already obtained. The investment is recovered in a period of less than 3 years after placing the plants in the field.
The product obtained becomes non-perishable when placed in brine. With this simple procedure, it can be marketed in bulk or fractionated and does not require any infrastructure, cold chain or large investments.
It is also important to differentiate between the production carried out in the greenhouse. These are usually selected plants, of better quality and prepared to survive water stress and with good adaptability to all types of soil.
Harvesting in Argentina
In capers, the production of flower buds is a continuous process that in Argentina begins in November and continues until May, with a strong production period between December and January.
The caper harvest is staggered, starting with a weekly harvesting frequency, to later shorten this frequency to 3 or 4 days when the production of flower buds accelerates. As the frequency of collection is increased, the caliber of the collected flower buds decreases, which favors commercialization because the industries tend to request smaller sizes.
Post-harvest handling of the product
The caper seedlings are rustified to obtain a better quality of the product. After this stage, they are placed in cardboard boxes for later transport.
In Argentina, consumption grew especially with the increase in international tourism. Chefs and haute cuisine are boosting local production. The initial low amount of crops in the country meant that capers used to be concentrated in the domestic market and not in export. In Argentina there is very little production of capers, being the pioneer Dr. Angel Rico in Santiago del Estero, so most of it is imported ”, he specified. “So, if the number of producers grows and an adequate volume is produced, there is the possibility of allocating part of it to export.”
As for prices, in bulk it can be sold at an average price of 3 $ per kilo, although specialists estimate that much better prices can be achieved according to the customer and the time of year, even reaching 7 $ per kilo.
It is also applied in the canning industry. It is known for its aphrodisiac and above all pharmacological properties, usually consumed as a diuretic, anti-rheumatic and anti-arthritic supplement.
Different products can be derived from capers that help when it comes to marketing: In the case of the gastronomic industry, these buttons are used to achieve a differentiated product for fine dishes. Also, it is processed as a powder, unique in the world that is part of the aromatics. This production is exported to South Africa and also has a high potential for acceptance due to its flavor and aroma. It has the advantage of being a non-perishable product.
The fruit is also brined and sold in the same way as capers. And in the case of the tender stems, they are also used in gastronomy in salads or gourmet products. These unconventional products derived from capers allow a full use of the plant .
Pros & Cons
Among the opportunities to grow capers, Argentina has all the requirements it takes:
- land area
- variety in climates
- available labor
Since this crop requires a manual harvest and not necessarily specialized. In addition, there is internal demand to satisfy and in full growth combined with external demand.
Production Areas in Argentina
In Argentina the production/cultivation of capers is distributed amongst the following provinces :
• Buenos Aires: Sierra de los Padres, Necochea, Luján, Pilar, Coronel Dorrego
• Entre Ríos: Paraná.
• Córdoba: Colonia Caroya, Canals, Cruz del Eje, Traslasierra, Villa General Belgrano, Río Cuarto
• Catamarca: Santa Maria, Fiambalá, Capital.
• Santa Fe: Avellaneda, Rosario.
• San Juan: Jachal, Santa Lucia, San Juan
• Mendoza: Godoy Cruz, Lavalle, 25 de Mayo.
• Neuquén: Centenario.
• Río Negro: Viedma, El Bolsón, Sierra Grande.
• Misiones: Leandro N. Alem.
• Tucumán: Simoca, Río Hondo
• Salta: Joaquín V. Gonzáles.
• Jujuy: Perico.
• Formosa: Clorinda.
• La Rioja: Chamical, Famatina, La Rioja, Patquia, Olta, Catuna y Chilecito
• Santiago del Estero: La Banda, Villa Nueva Esperanza, Añatuya, Bandera, Termas de Río Hondo.
• Chubut: Puerto Madryn, Trelew.
Growing diverse opportunities
Diversification is spreading towards cosmetic products, opening up business opportunities to new scenarios. It is a non-perishable product, easy to handle and resistant to climatic changes. In addition, it does not require large investments, has a low cost per hectare and above all, with an average useful life of 80 years, silver is used in its entirety.
If research into the use of quercetin against corona and other health issues is successful this will create another great economic opportunity.
As for the negative variables to take into account:
- The unstable economic, tax and customs environment in Argentina
- The competition of producing countries that already have an established market, as is the case of Italy.
- The lack of production volume which complicates growing an export market difficult. This difficulty is accentuated considering the fact it takes at least 3 years to get volume.
The Future for Argentine Capers
Mainly used as a vegetable or condiment in the kitchen, the consumption of capers is ancient and is widespread throughout the world.
It is also applied in the canning industry. It is known aphrodisiac and above all pharmacological properties: it is usually consumed as a diuretic, antirheumatic and antiarthritic. In Argentina there is very little production of capers, being the pioneer Dr. Ángel Rico in Santiago del Estero, so most of it is imported. So, if the number of producers grows and an adequate volume is produced, there is the possibility of allocating part of it to export.
Rico has been working with capers since 1992 with nurseries of his own creation, which are adapted almost exclusively to these plants. In addition, they have cement floors and trays, and a drainage designed to water the pots by immersion, preventing the appearance of fungi and diseases so that in this way, the plant grows faster.
The AR1 caper
The producer even has his own variety, AR1, registered and of his own. It is a variety without thorn, resistant to diseases and water stress.
Different products can be derived from capers that help when marketing: In the case of the gastronomic industry, these buttons are used to achieve a differentiated product for fine dishes. Also, it is processed as a powder, unique in the world that is part of the aromatics. This production is exported to South Africa and also has a high potential for acceptance due to its flavor and aroma. It has the advantage of being a non-perishable product.
As for cosmetic products, leaves and flower buds are used, which are the parts that concentrate the pharmacological properties. Its main asset is a bioflavonoid called rutin, which is found in high concentrations in AR 1 capers. This range of caper-based cosmetics are also under the patent of Orígenes SRL. The fruit is also brined and sold in the same way as capers. And in the case of the tender stems, they are also used in gastronomy in salads or gourmet products. These unconventional products derived from capers allow a full use of it.
“We also have international certification granted by the OIA –International Agricultural Organization-“, points out Lic. Pablo Rico, marketing director of Orígenes SRL.
Historically, Italy and Spain were the countries dedicated to production, export and leaders in domestic consumption. But, from the 80s, they became fully importers, since they preferred mechanized crops due to the increase in the cost of labor. As the number of planted areas of the main producers was reduced, a large gap between supply and demand has since opened up. In this way, the price remains high and capers have become an important business opportunity for those who have the possibility of exploring international markets.
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