Sea gardeners rescue Baja California’s cranberry
By Viko R. Rodríguez / Reporter
Baja California. – Planting and harvesting cranberries, like any other export crop, comes with its challenges; and one of these can be found in the roots. Cranberries’ roots often have difficulties with root development: they do not hold together well nor they obtain the necessary nutrients from the soil, particularly Baja California’s cranberries.
To solve this problem was key to increase the efficiency of cranberry plants planted by Santo Domingo Berry Farms, located in the San Quintín Valley (Baja California).
Several options were tested but it was seaweed extract the only one capable of strengthening the root system of the peninsular cranberry.
The cranberry -whose export value has increased more than 300% in the last five years- quickly became the star of the berries, and the solution to its issues did not fall from the sky: it came from the sea.
In the coast of Ensenada, strong waves sway back and forth the brown seaweed typical of the littoral. These are the kelp forests (Macrocystis pyrifera) where red and green seaweeds coexist to a lesser extent. Within these forests, life buzzes through a complex trophic chain that involves a variety of astonishing species.
Macroalgae forests can spread by hectares at the sea and in them plants reach a height of up to 30 meters. Their magnitude denote an ecosystem rich in nutrients.
These forests feed on ocean currents; in there, temperature does not exceed 20 degrees Celsius and rocky substratum can be found which allows plants to hold themselves to the seabed. Compared to the Caribbean marine reefs, the Caribbean itself -without refuting its own beauty- seems more akin to a marine desert.
Baja California is a kelp paradise. Currently, there exist several industries that depend on kelp’s use: from sea urchin fishery and abalone farming to projects in the food industry and in a thriving agricultural one
SEAWEED TO THE RESCUE OF CROP
Since early morning, the pangas of Algas Pacific go through the kelp beds in search of their raw material. They move slowly. On the sides of the boat, on the surface, the fresh brown seaweeds’ stems rest.
Operators proceed with a selective pruning of brown seaweed and red seaweed choosing only those in better condition. This sustainable management of kelp allows its natural regeneration: a standard practice for a company aware of its close relationship with this marine plant.
Sea gardeners return on average with two tons of seaweeds per trip. Onshore, their relief awaits them. They are the ones who will transport the product to the center of operations in Ensenada where the grinding and the alchemy will convene to transform the plants from their physical state to the liquid extract so sought by farmers.
“When I look at a kelp bed, I see a field of opportunities,” stated David Lora Sánchez, oceanologist, co-founder and general director of Mexican company Algas Pacific.
Inspired by the history of humankind where there exists records of seaweeds being used as fertilizers since 2700 BC in China, and from the twelfth century in Europe, he knew that he could make the most out of kelp forests to improve the output of Mexican agricultural companies as well as foreign ones.
Under this premise, David Lora, along with three partners associated to the agricultural sector, founded Algas Pacific in 2012.
“We are a company that produces seaweeds extracts for agricultural applications. Whether it is as a biostimulant or rooting compound, our extracts must solve real problems in agriculture. It is a matter of putting seaweeds’ properties at the crops’ disposition,” the director explains.
It is through the transformation of brown and red seaweeds, little used species whose carbohydrate load represents a part of the company’s innovations, that they create formulas with just the characteristics that fulfill the needs detected by Algas Pacific’s own team of agronomist technicians. They analyze beforehand the crops of potential customers in order to generate solutions customized to each agricultural businessperson. The formula for a cranberry crop is one, and for the tomato crop is another.
Algas Pacific currently has four pillar products: NPKelp, Kelproot, Larusoil, and Copperkelp. All of them together represent a production of 1.2 million liters a year.
Their products are acquired by agricultural companies located in Mexico, the United States, Spain and Chile; and they expect to increase their production to 5 million liters a year thanks to the new facilities they are about to inaugurate.
“That a saladette tomato company in Baja California Sur has had achieved earnings of 100k Mexican pesos per hectare -increasing its output by 20%- with an investment of 6k Mexican pesos in seaweed extract from our company tells me that we are on the right path,” added David Lora.
Despite their success, the company continues to innovate. Along with researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), they developed a formula in the field of nanotechnology that through copper particles and seaweeds works effectively as fungicide and bactericidal in several crops, including walnut trees.
This vehemence, which is part of the company’s DNA, is what keeps them at the forefront in the market. And as long as they continue transforming seaweeds into extracts for agriculture, consumers can enjoy the delicious taste of a perfect cranberry, a fruit that reached its peak thanks to a little help from the sea.
CRANBERRY, ANOTHER SEA PEARL
The cranberry is considered the export star among the berries. This fruit has increased its export value by 264% between 2014 and 2018, which makes it the berry with the most increase in its sales value for export over the last 5 years.
In 2015, cranberry’s exports were of more than $83.2 million USD and by 2018, this berry recorded sales of more than $303 million USD in foreign markets.
Baja California is a touchstone in the production of berries since it is the third producer at national level. However, 90% of its production ends up at American kitchens.
According to data from the Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (SADER per its initials in Spanish), the entity produces 134 576,5 tons of berries per year; this includes strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, and raspberries. Only a tenth is destined for regional and national consumption and the rest is exported to the United States.
Without seaweed as a root-strengthening nutrient, the story of cranberry production in Mexico would be very different