(March 7, 1:25 p.m.) SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Pineapples are big business in Costa Rica. They’re so big, they’re worth pulling out coffee crops.

That’s just what Alberto Esquivel, chief executive officer and co-owner of San Jose-based Frutas de Exportacion Frutex SA, did at his Santa Fe plantation four years ago.

The company has increased its pineapple business from 1 million boxes in 2001 to an expected 11 million boxes in 2008, making it the largest independent pineapple grower-shipper in the country at about 10% of Costa Rica’s production, Esquivel said.

Frutex plans to add another 1 million boxes next year, with a 2,964-acre operation, called Fortalesa, in the eastern part of the country, coming into production in late 2009. The new farm should produce an additional 3 million to 4 million cartons per year at full capacity.

Frutex sends about 40% of its total pineapple production to North America, Esquivel said, about 90% of that goes through The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.

The other 60% goes to Europe.

All the pineapples are the gold variety, which Oppenheimer markets under the Linda Gold label.

Frutex produces pineapples from four farms, totaling 5,567 acres:

  • Pital, in the north, 1,077 acres;

  • Babilonia, in the east by the Atlantic Ocean, 1,433 acres;

  • Santa Fe, in the south, 1,655 acres, and

  • Somos Verdes, in the south by the Pacific, 1,393 acres.

Because Frutex grows pineapples all over Costa Rica, it can easily produce year-round, and the company avoids any severe weather damage from the country’s microclimates by such geographic diversity, Esquivel said.

Since the gold variety is picked at peak ripeness, it’s imperative to get the fruit packed and shipped quickly.

Frutex has packing operations at all four sites, where fruit is picked, cleaned, packed, cooled and shipped to the port within a matter of hours, said Ana Lucia Lopez, marketing manager, who also is involved in logistics.

Esquivel has quite a history in Costa Rican produce. In addition to his one-third ownership of Frutex, which was founded in 2000, he also owns a third of an independent banana company, Caribana, with the Lewis and Loeb families, and he has a 50% stake in a box company with the Lewis family.

All of the Frutex pineapples are shipped in boxes from Esquivel’s box company, he said.

Esquivel’s family has a history in the coffee business, as do most of Costa Rica’s wealthy families, he said. But he also has a history in politics, serving as Costa Rica’s agriculture secretary under President Oscar Arias in the 1980s.

Esquivel said he no longer participates in politics, something he calls his “youthful indiscretion.”

So why did he pull up his coffee plants to grow pineapples in Santa Fe?

“Pineapples are good business,” he said.

Esquivel said Del Monte Fresh Produce deserves a lot of the credit for growing the pineapple market with its Gold variety, which consumers prefer over the traditional champaca variety.

U.S. consumption figures bear this out. In the mid-1990s, American consumers ate about 2 pounds per person annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2006, it reached a high of 5.2 pounds per person per year.

“We can produce pineapples year round with good taste, consistent quality, ripe and fresh,” he said.

Consistent quality and yields with organic pineapples have been elusive, Esquivel said, as Frutex has experimented with organic production without success.

“Quality issues have made us afraid,” he said. “Some organic bananas here have had good quality, but everything I’ve seen in organic pineapples has been lousy.”

David Nelley, pipfruit category director for Oppenheimer, confirmed that the company’s organic efforts with both Frutex and smaller Costa Rican growers have led to quality problems, but it’s still a goal of both companies.