Pickling Cucumber Improvement Committee Meeting Abstract
By and large the U.S. pickling industry is able to source all of its raw product requirements from within the U.S. However, the following industry segments rely on imports of raw product:
a) Fresh and refrigerated packing during core winter monthsb) Small pickles (i.e., gherkins less than 1 inch in diameter) in preserving solution
c) Specialty items like Pepperoncini and other peppers whenever they are available
My focus will be to share our experience and vision on item (b), i.e., small pickles in preserving solutions.
The market niche for small pickles is because of the increasing difficulty experienced by U.S. bottling companies to source “hand harvested” small pickles from North American farms due to farm labour shortages. The North American farmers are increasingly converting their crops to be harvested by machines and, therefore, the intake of small pickles is compromised. The farms that still remain as hand harvest farms in the U.S. and Canada find it more economical to harvest sizes 2, 3 and 4.
Possibly about 20 years ago, the “small pickles in solution” started to be imported into the U.S. Early supplying countries have been Spain, Chile, and Brazil, and it also appears some trials have been done out of Caribbean countries. From about 1989, Sri Lanka started to become a reliable supplier, soon to be overtaken by neighboring South India. From about 1993/1994 until now, India has become the consistent major supplier.
We estimate the yearly imports from India to the U.S. to be about 500,000 bushels. Virtually all imports are for sizes less than 1 inch in diameter, and they all come packed in food-grade plastic barrels. Hand harvesting is an important cost element in the production of small pickles, and India’s abundant supply of motivated small-scale farmers, good agricultural land, and cheap hand harvesting labour gives it a lot of control on these key requirements to sustain this crop in India. Three companies have recently started bottling pickles in India and expect to gain market share in small pickle packs and other large fresh cut pickle products that require hand labour to pack.
India’s total small pickle exports is estimated to be about 2 million bushels, and of this about 25% is to the U.S. The other countries that sought after these small pickles are France, Spain, Belgium, United Kingdom, Italy, and Australia. Recently, exports have also started to Japan, Korea and Bulgaria.
Virtually all of India’s production is from South India. The agri system is organized as an “out-grower” system where the processing/exporting companies provide seeds and technology to grow the crop and offer a guaranteed buy back of the entire crop at pre-agreed prices. It is estimated that about 30,000 small-scale farmers grow this crop at least for one crop cycle a year. Back to back sowing is avoided in the same field, and crop rotation is adopted. The climate permits three growing cycles, resulting in 9 months of production. An average farm size is 0.6 of an acre, and virtually 100% of the crop is raised on trellises. I would estimate about 70% of the exports are done by six exporters. The balance gets exported by another ten or more exporters.
The three broad categories in small pickles are: 0-5/8 inch diameter (1A small); 5/8-13/16 inch (1A large), and 13/16-1 inch (1B). The main imports into the U.S. are in the 1A large and 1B categories. Europe is a large buyer of 1A small category, making the entire crop marketable.
All of the commercial production is for seeded varieties. Trials are being done for parthenocarpic varieties. Bee keeping on the farm is selectively practiced, and for the most part pollination is relied upon with natural bee activity.
After about 9 continuous years of year-round production, the gherkin business has become a mainstay business in India. However, for the Indian production to keep its market position with the international pickle companies for the next 10 years, several further challenges have to be overcome. The main ones are: a) ensuring complete traceability of crop to the various farms; b) managing the crop to avoid the incidence of worm eaten fruits; c) managing the pesticide residue level requirements of Europe and the U.S., which are not exactly the same; d) increasing the returns for the investment and effort as the prices have steadily eroded by almost 60% of what it was 10 years ago due to aggressive internal competition. Some infrastructure change may become necessary in the agri out grower system to meet these challenges.
Despite these challenges, overall labour cost advantage, motivation levels, cultivation history, and climate make India a good option for small pickles.
.For further information, contact:
- M. Veerakumar
- Montrose International
- 156 Reynolds Street, Oakville, Ontario, Canada L6J 3K9
- Telephone: 905-339-0229; Fax: 905-339-0576
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org