In conversations about foreign trade in Costa Rica, it is only a matter time before somebody mentions ornamental plants.
A darling of the non-traditional export sector, ornamental plants have found tremendous success in the international market, banking $162.9 million in 2004, and $158.1 million as of November in 2005, according to Foreign Trade Ministry statistics.
Now, a pilot program to eliminate pests from agricultural exports to the United States is being run – successfully, it seems – here in Costa Rica using a particular ornamental plant as the test subject, and could end up further opening the U.S. market for Costa Rican ornamental plant exports.
The program, known as a clean stock program, involves the close monitoring of 10 companies that produce and export Dracaenas – the green, leafy tropical houseplants that account for the majority of ornamental plant exports to the United States – in order to reduce insect infestations among the crops.
The Dracaenas include ornamentals commonly known in the United States as “Dragon Tree,” and “Corn Plant,” which is called caña india in Costa Rica, where it can be seen lining the fences of houses and farms.
If the clean stock program is a success, it will be applied to other countries and other exports, and a U.S. trade law restricting the size of plants imported into the United States would be dropped for countries that can comply. Currently, plants that have foliage and roots and are larger than 18 inches are prohibited from entering the United States.
“This is the first program of its kind ever established in a country,” said Magda González, who is overseeing the clean stock program in Costa Rica and heads the export division of the Plant and Health Services department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
González explained that before the program went into effect in October 2005, a common problem with the plant exports were “interceptions,” which occur when a plant is found to have insects or diseases that could spread and infect other plants once they arrive in the United States. If pests are found on Dracaenas, the entire shipment must then be sprayed with Methyl Bromide, a gas that kills the bugs but also burns the plants’ leaves and depletes the ozone.
Before the program started, there were 46-47 interceptions a month, González said. Since October, there have only been two. The clean stock program has two components, González explained. One, the inspection component, involves the close monitoring of Dracaenas from the fields where they are planted, to the packaging facility where they are boxed up, and along the transportation route in the country to their final point of exit.
The other component involves research into the insects themselves and factors that affect the plant’s overall health, with technical and scientific support from the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica, and Purdue University in the U.S. state of Indiana.
“The research component involves the identification of pests associated with Dracaena and the damage they can cause,” González explained. “We are also hoping that we will find an alternative to control these pests, besides the use of pesticides.”
Costa Rica has well over 1,000 producers growing ornamental plants, of which 800 are small and medium producers, according to González.
“Most of them were coffee growers,” she explained. “They switched from coffee to the ornamental plant activity because of the low prices that from time to time would really drop.”
The production of these producers is channeled through 260 exporters onto the world market, according to the Trade Ministry. One of those exporters, and one of the select 10 chosen to take part in the clean stock program, is the Cooperativa Agrícola de Productores de Caña India, R.L. (Coopeindia), an ornamental plant cooperative that exports principally to the U.S. state of Florida, as well nine other countries.
On Jan. 11, Coopeindia General Manager Mario Vargas hosted a commercial mission from Indiana, which also included Purdue researchers, to the Coopeindia plant in Palmares, located in the province of Alajuela, about an hour’s drive northwest of San José.
Vargas’ principal objective, he said, was to show the visitors the cleanliness and efficiency in Coopeindia’s process, and impress on them the importance of removing the 18-inch rule, which Vargas says is outdated and unfair.
According to Marco González, a program specialist in Costa Rica with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the rule dates back to the 1930s and is in place because the United States did not have the facilities to process larger plants, and because larger plants are older plants, and older plants are more susceptible to disease and insects.
“There needs to be a change in that,” González said.
For Vargas, the rule restricts the business his company, and others, can do in the United States. Its removal, he said, would benefit both sides of the equation.
“This would give Costa Rica the possibility of selling more product to the United States,”Vargas said. The United States would gain because plant dealers would no longer have to wait for small plants to grow larger to satisfy some customers’ needs, Vargas said.
Mark Haggard, President of the Indiana Landscape and Nursery Association and a member of the Indiana commercial mission that visited Coopeindia, agreed with Vargas. “For years we have been concerned about the size of the material we’ve been able to purchase,” Haggard said, noting that distributors have to expend time and resources growing plants so they can be sold. “You have to wait, and naturally it’s a longer procedure and that means more cost.”
As he walked through the expansive growing operations with the rest of the mission, he said he was happy with what he saw. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to get this clean stock program in place, where the States will allow the larger material to come in and we can get it quicker, less expensive, and pass that savings on to the consumer,” he said.