Hungry for more

Widely recognised as the world’s largest producer of asparagus, Altar Produce is ready to rise to new challenges and conquer new markets

A lot can happen in 70 years. Just ask Chris Ramirez, President of Altar Produce. “The company was founded in Mexico back in 1955,” Chris begins. “We started very small with only 20 acres of land. From there, we branched out into the northern part of the country, before expanding into the rest of Mexico. Now, in 2020, we have around 13,000 hectares full of crops.”

Spread across Mexico, the 13,000 hectares Chris mentions are used to grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, including broccoli, spring onions, cilantro, parsley, Brussels sprouts, and most prominently, asparagus.

“We have asparagus all over the country,” Chris agrees. “It is grown primarily in the Sonora region, which is probably our biggest region, where we have close to 5000 hectares divided between Caborca and San Luis Rio Colorado. We have another major site in Irapuato, as well as two locations in Baja California – one in Mexicali and one in Ensenada.”

The company’s large acreage, strategically scattered around the country, provides Altar with the ability to harvest year-round, a significant benefit for a company that exports over a third of its produce.

“Some items we have are seasonal,” Chris says, discussing the company’s production capabilities in more detail. “Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, radish, and leeks are grown specifically for the winter harvest, which runs from October through the latter part of March. Our asparagus and spring onions, on the other hand, are available to us all year long.”

Global success
Asparagus, of course, is the company’s main commodity. It accounts for 85 per cent of Altar’s business and the organisation currently produces more than 11 million 5kg boxes of the vegetable per year, equating to around 68,500 tonnes.

“We have been doing this a long time and we consider ourselves pioneers of asparagus in Latin America,” Chris declares. “Peru also grows a lot of asparagus and, for a while, they took over as the biggest global producer. However, over the last three or four years, things have changed rapidly and Mexico is now, once again, the biggest grower of asparagus in the world.”

After asparagus, Altar’s next most popular product is spring onions, around 20 per cent of which are shipped to the UK. Chris believes that Altar’s place in the UK market is a good example of the company’s success on a global scale. As well as working with large importers such as Flamingo and Wealmoor, Altar has struck direct deals with major supermarkets, including Aldi and Asda.

“In the UK, we are everywhere. I would say that Altar represents 75 to 80 per cent of Mexican asparagus that gets imported into the country,” Chris proclaims, and he suggests similar numbers apply in other markets. “In Asia and Japan, we’re probably 85 to 90 per cent of the produce that gets imported.

“There’s a reason why we have so much market share in these places and a lot of it comes down to trust. We’ve been around a lot longer than most of the other companies exporting asparagus. People trust our brand and they trust us as a grower.

“We always try to understand the specific needs of our select markets and we aim to create harmonious business relationships through the way we work. It’s not like the US market, it’s very different, and we do our best to protect it. Even when things are rough, we try to prioritise the customers that are loyal to us.”

People power
Family-owned and family-operated since the company’s inception, Chris believes that Altar’s roots have helped the business build a reputation for customer service. “Altar is still owned by my dad,” he adds. “We’re vertically-integrated and we control everything from planting the seeds, to the harvest, to the processing, even the freight. Our history shows that we are not just another opportunistic marketing company. We have a fleet of 65 trucks, offices in San Diego, Calexico, and Miami, and if we tell a customer we’re going to ship, we ship. Our clients have total faith in our quality and our level of service.”

When asked about key factors that have contributed to Altar’s success, Chris is quick to cite the contribution made by the company’s workforce. A major employer in the regions it operates, Altar hires 30,000 to 40,000 people during the company’s three-month Caborca harvest season, many of whom return year after year.

“Due to the acreage we have, current technology would be too slow for our harvest and so we require manual labour,” Chris asserts. “Harvesting asparagus is a very tedious process, but unlike other packing sheds, the people who work with us tend to stay here. There’s a lot of packing sheds and there’s a lot of other growers, but something that makes us strong is that people keep coming back to Altar because we’ve treated them well. Our harvest workers do an important job and I think we owe a lot to them for showing up to work everyday.”

Positive spirit
After a successful 2019, the beginning of 2020 has been more challenging for Altar as the business world comes to terms with the outbreak of Covid-19. Still, Chris remains pragmatic in the face of the pandemic, arguing that the situation for the company could be far more perilous.

“Coronavirus is a setback for everybody,” he says. “Everyone is in the same boat though, and some people have it worse due their business structure. Fortunately for Altar, a lot of our business is continuing with retailers and the food service.

“If Coronavirus has taught us anything,” Chris continues, “it’s that sometimes we take things for granted. We never thought this would hinder us so much, but we’ll do our best to keep providing everybody with quality asparagus. It might take a long time, it’s going to be a process, but things will get back to normal eventually.”

With this positive spirit and desire for progress, Chris is already developing a clear vision for the company’s future. “We have a powerful work ethic,” he claims. “I like to think of every section of the business as an arm and they’ve all got to be rowing in the same direction. I think when you do that, you get results.

“No-one in the business is complacent about where we are. What gives us the edge over our competition is that we’re always hungry, we’re always striving to take things to the next level. If we’ve got 85 per cent of the UK business, we want 100 per cent of it. We want more.”

In the case of Altar’s plans for the years ahead, ‘more’ comes in the shape of an increased presence in Europe and on the east coast of the United States. The company currently ships to the US and Canada on a year-round basis, and in 2019, for the first time in the organisation’s history, Altar added Japan to this list. Why then has the company chosen Europe and the US east coast as its next two targets for growth?

“Once our Caborca harvest period is over, those two locations, specifically, have always been very Peruvian focused,” Chris answers. “When we’re done with that big glut of volume around the latter part of April, in terms of import business, Europe and the east coast always seem to turn to Peru.”

Altar aims to be the company that breaks this trend and Chris suggests that a major shift in the status quo is already on the horizon.

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Peru was struggling to remain competitive, Mexico was already pushing them out. We’re currently being approached by a lot of European customers to continue to supply them for the rest of the year once their local deals are done, so it’s looking like we’re definitely going to be a presence on a year-round basis in Europe and the UK. It’s great news for Altar. We don’t want to say goodbye after the Caborca harvest. We want to be there all year long.”

New trade agreements may also benefit the company in its mission to win more European business. In 2018, Mexico and the European Union agreed an agreement on a trade deal that would eliminate a vast array of tariffs between the two blocs. At the end of April 2020, the last elements of the deal were confirmed and under the new terms, practically all trade in goods between the EU and Mexico will be duty-free, including farm products such as Mexican chicken, European dairy, and, most crucially for Altar, asparagus.

“I’m not sure how the UK will be affected but this is great news for our business with the European Union,” Chris remarks. “Peru has been able to take advantage of no tariffs for many years, and it’s part of the reason why people would immediately turn to them once the Caborca harvest was done and the pricing wasn’t there. Now, without tariffs, once things get cleared up, it’s going to open the doors to a lot of future business for us. We’re going to have tremendous growth going forward.”

With EU customers now able to look forward to more Altar products in local supermarkets and restaurants, Chris and his team hope that the same can soon be said for more consumers worldwide. However, this does not mean that the company will be neglecting its core of loyal clients who have helped Altar grow from a small family business, packing asparagus under the shade of a tree, to the world’s largest producer of the vegetable, on the cusp of a major breakthrough in Europe.

“On behalf of the company, I would like to thank everybody for their loyalty and trust in our brand,” Chris says emphatically. “We would not have been able to achieve any of this without their support.”