Courtesy Turkey Knob Growers Viginia apple growers formed an export trading company in 2003, Timberville, Va.-based Turkey Knob Growers. The company has shipped apples to Cuba, Panama and Venezuea and plans to add Costa Rica this season. (CORRECTED Feb. 21) The decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba hasn’t stopped Timberville, Va.-based Turkey Knob Growers from doing a brisk business in apples there.
“We’ve booked 62 containers from September through March,” said Dawson Williams, vice president of The GIC Group, an Alexandria, Va.-based agribusiness consulting firm that works with Turkey Knob.
Seven of those containers were to be sourced by Hendersonville, N.C.-based Apple Wedge Packers & Cider.
The idea to go into Cuba hatched in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle, which hit the island in 2001, said Rick Gilmore, president of GIC Group, Alexandria, Va.
“There was a change in our provisions to allow the export of agricultural commodities and medical supplies on humanitarian grounds,” Gilmore said.
“A specific provision under U.S. law allows suspension of antitrust upon review by the Justice Department, and their determination that there’s no price impact on the U.S. market. It allows suppliers to confer on price and supply for export alone.”
So Virginia growers came together to form an export trading company in 2003 as a way into the Cuban market. Turkey Knob Growers, an alliance of orchards and other farming operations, grows 3,500 acres of apples. The fruit is packed, stored and sold by Bowman Fruit Sales.
Why Cuba? What’s the lure of apples in a region noted for homegrown fruits?
“Bananas aren’t refreshing, and tropicals are mushy,” Williams said. “Apples are refreshing and crispy. When I went to the Havana International Trade Fair two years ago, I brought four or five varieties to register and give away as samples. They were a hit. I was lucky to get out of there alive.
“We do Cuba to kind of tee off our other business in the region. We’ve gone to Panama for a couple years now, but we’ve expanded this year with some newer varieties we haven’t shipped before. We’re in Costa Rica for the first time this year. Venezuela is growing for us.”
Those varieties included three containers of rome apples in the Cuba shipments. Panama was to receive nine containers of virginia yorks, staymans and fujis.
“Even in Venezuela, we did virginia golds, which have a better internal pressure than golden delicious,” Williams said. “We’re trying to educate buyers about options, and it has allowed us to diversify.
“I’ve been trying to push away the focus on red delicious, even though that’s the bread and butter. Washington state did a heck of a job branding the red delicious, but others who know apples know there’s better tasting ones out there.”
GIC Group, which also represents table grapes, pears and walnuts, likes to crack open hard-to-reach markets.
“We specialize in that,” Williams said. “It’s good for the grower if you can, because you can build a relationship. Turkey Knob takes a long term view of our international customers. They don’t just pack up any old fruit and put it on a boat. You can build a brand loyalty that lasts many years.”
Prices paid by such clients compete well with domestic prices, Gilmore said.
CORRECTED: The companies' idea to build an export business with Cuba developed after Hurricane Michelle in 2001. The original article referred to a different hurricane.