Business Monday

Chestnut Hill Farms: ‘We think pineapples’

Blooming business: Chestnut Hill Farms COO Raul Romero, left, and CEO Trond Jensen work at the company’s headquarters in Coral Gables.
Blooming business: Chestnut Hill Farms COO Raul Romero, left, and CEO Trond Jensen work at the company’s headquarters in Coral Gables. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Chestnut Hill Farms doesn’t grow chestnuts.

The Coral Gables-based company grows pineapples in Costa Rica and plantains in Panama, and most of its production — 98 percent — is pineapples.

“We used to grow other products in Latin America, but we decided to concentrate on pineapples,” said Trond Jensen, the chairman and CEO of Chestnut Hill Farms (CHF). “Our advantage is that we are fully integrated — growing, packing, marketing and shipping — and we provide consistent quality, premium pineapples to our customers,” said Jensen, who was born in Norway, received a degree in economics from the University of California at San Diego and got his first job at Banco Consolidado, a large commercial bank in Venezuela.

“We think pineapples,” he added.

CHF is a group of companies with headquarters, sales and marketing offices in Coral Gables, two major farms (more than 8,700 acres), packing houses and other operations in Costa Rica. CHF owns all of its land in Costa Rica, but grows plantains on other land in Panama.

The company has 25 people at its Coral Gables headquarters, five other employees working in quality control in other parts of the U.S., and about 1,300 employees at the farms, depending on the season.

Jensen purchased Chestnut Hills Farms in 2000 from Miami-based Seaboard Marine and kept its original name. The company is now owned by Jensen and four other investors, combining the skills of businessmen in Coral Gables and farmers who run the company’s operations in Latin America.

“We can grow pineapples and plantains year round in the same locations, and this allows us to specialize, and really get it right,” said Raul Romero, CHF’s president and COO.

“We have control of production, logistics, distribution, marketing and sales, and this allows us to be consistent suppliers to customers who seek and need a reliable source,” said Romero, who earned an undergraduate degree in rural sociology and a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University.

Logistics — which is critical in moving fresh fruit from farms to seaports to international customers before it fully ripens – “is more consistent for us, following the same routes every week” from Costa Rica, added Romero, who worked with Chiquita Brands for many years.

CHF is a major pineapple grower and marketer in the international market. “We are currently producing approximately 10 million boxes of pineapples per year,” said Jensen, who came to Miami in 1985 to manage a commodities trading company for another Venezuelan bank, Banco Latino. “Additional land has already been acquired to allow us to add approximately one million boxes of additional fresh pineapples during the next three years. Growth is a necessity in order to meet the demands of our loyal customer base.”

Currently CHF sells about 60 percent of its pineapples to clients in the United States and 40 percent to Europe. The company recently started shipping fresh pineapples to South Korea.

CHF competes with large companies like Del Monte Foods, Dole, Chiquita Brands and Fyffes.

Its customers include supermarket chains, warehouse clubs and retailers like Costco, Market Basket, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Sainsbury’s and Wegmans.

CHF sells a hybrid pineapple called MD-2, which has generally replaced earlier varieties of pineapples. The pineapples are sold under CHF’s own trademarked name, the “Perfect Pineapple.”

“The MD-2s we raise replaced older, more acid pineapples that were often used for canning,” Romero said. “Our pineapples are sweeter, tastier and have a different internal consistency. They are best suited for fresh consumption.”

Costa Rica provides an excellent climate for growing pineapples, which do well in heat and high humidity. It takes 13 to 15 months for pineapples to grow from seeds to the point where they are ready for harvest. Some sections of a plantation may need to be harvested earlier than others because of a cold snap, which accelerates maturity.

After harvesting, pineapples are packed in boxes, kept in giant coolers and transported in trucks to cargo ships that carry them overseas.

CHP carefully monitors its crops to ensure that pineapples are harvested at the right time so that they can reach customers thousands of miles away before they attain peak maturity. “We constantly test pineapples for sugar content,” Jensen said. “You can walk through a field in the morning and say that the fruit isn’t ready to harvest. But if you walk through again later in the day, you can see that it’s ready.”

Growing pineapples is a capital-intensive business. CHF invests heavily in preparing thousands of acres of soil, making beds for the plants and constructing primary and secondary drainage canals.

The company stresses sustainable agriculture, minimizing the use of herbicides and pesticides and using beneficial natural organisms to fight pests.

“We do a lot of field sampling,” Romero said. “We won’t apply any chemicals until the pest population in a certain area becomes unmanageable. We use as many biological measures as possible against pests.”

CHP also invests significantly in social, educational and other projects for workers and the communities where they live. The company donates land for employee housing, supports food programs for children, funds educational programs, buys school supplies and builds roads and bridges to connect communities and create jobs.

To many Americans, pineapples are synonymous with Hawaii. But Costa Rica is the world’s largest exporter of fresh pineapples, and pineapple production in Hawaii has declined significantly. Pineapples, in fact, are believed to be native to Paraguay and southern Brazil.

“Why did we choose Costa Rica for pineapples?” Romero said. “I think Costa Rica chose pineapples. Per capita consumption continues to increase. Pineapples are healthy, fun, versatile and easy to consume, and we’re investing in Costa Rica to meet new demand.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com

Chestnut Hill Farms

Business: A fully integrated group, Chestnut Hill Farms grows, packs, markets and ships fresh pineapples and plantains to clients in the U.S. and Europe. Pineapples are grown at two sites in Costa Rica and plantains at a farm in Panama. Chestnut Hill Farms is a major pineapple producer, competing with Del Monte Foods, Dole, Chiquita and Fyffes. The company uses sustainable farming practices and provides a range of social and educational benefits to employees, their families and the communities where it operates in Latin America.

Headquarters: 806 S. Douglas Rd., Coral Gables

Management: Chairman and CEO: Trond Jensen; President and COO: Raul Romero

Founded: in 1990 as a part of Miami-based Seaboard Marine; purchased by Trond Jensen in 2000.

Ownership: Trond Jensen and four other investors

Employees: 25 at the Coral Gables headquarters, five more in other parts of the U.S. and about 1,300 at the farms in Costa Rica and Panama, depending on the season

Sales: Pineapples account for 98 percent of production, and plantains 2 percent. The company produces and sells about 10 million boxes of fresh pineapples per year.

Clients: Supermarket chains and retail stores in the U.S. and Europe, including Costco, Sainsbury’s, Wegmans, Market Basket, Carrefour and Marks & Spencer.

Website: www.chfusa .com

Source: Chestnut Hill Farms

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