May 1, 2006

Group Backs Pineapples

Print More

The pineapple inferiority complex is not a condition you will discuss in psychology class any time in the near future. But it is a very real phenomenon in Nicaraguan farming communities according to five Cornell undergraduates – student entrepreneurs currently developing a pineapple importation business they call “La Piña Blanca,” Spanish for “the white pineapple.”

Each student belongs to a different college at Cornell; majors range from hotel administration to biological and environmental engineering. Jesse Fallick ’06, Marcus Cohn ’07, John Zimmer ’06, Pete Skold ’06 and Rudy Espinoza ’07 are making big plans to fight what they call Nicaragua’s “downward spiral,” a positive-feedback loop of economic destitution which is entrapping Nicaraguan farmers in unsustainable, impoverishing farming practices. They would argue that phenomena like the pineapple inferiority complex are in part what happens when financial need and consequent haste force farmers to produce fruit using substandard pineapple growth hormones. These cause pineapples to mature twice as fast, but the crop is bitterer and about half the size of an untreated crop.

Naturally sweeter and less acidic than Costa Rican pineapples that Americans normally consume, the Nicaraguan white pineapple is absent from the U.S market. Cornellians who visited Nicaragua over spring break this semester with student organization Bridges to Community swear by it. Yet local opinion in the Nicaraguan village of La Borgoña is that “gringos don’t like our pineapples,” as Espinoza paraphrased it. This sentiment is shared even by the mayor of Ticuantepe – La Borgoña’s municipality and home to 80 percent of Nicaragua’s pineapple production, none of which is currently exported.

On their website, the group states their primary goal as to “to assist Nicaraguan white pineapple farmers in entering the international market, ultimately improving the Nicaraguan community by promoting economic development.” But the roots of the business have a complexity and depth that began well before considering international trade of the unusual white Nicaraguan pineapple. And visions for the future of La Piña Blanca stretch well beyond its catchy namesake.

The five students are quick and consistent in emphasizing the grassroots character of their project. Fallick said, “Our vision stems from that philosophy [that we learned while living in Nicaragua] … talking with farmers, living with them, working with them.”

The story of La Piña Blanca begins not over a business luncheon at the Statler, but in a class this semester, designed to prepare them for their six-day house-building trip to Nicaragua with Bridges to Community.

“We all took an independent study class in the hotel school, taught by Therese O’Connor,” Fallick said, “We learned about Nicaraguan history, how the political turmoil has shaped current conditions … we learned about the downward spiral.”

Although visiting Nicaragua was nothing new to Cohn or Espinoza, whose families hail from the country, the dynamic of the trip itself had a decidedly unique and strong effect on the five students. After being “touristy” the first day or so, they arrived in the village of La Borgoña, where they would cooperate with local masons and builders to construct two new houses. As they got off the bus, a swarm of children came running up –

“The kids jumped us,” Fallick said. Repeatedly, the five referred to the combined influence of talking and working with the locals, learning about their problems and spending time with the children, who also work picking pineapples.

“I was talking with two kids,” said Zimmer, “I asked one of them ‘What do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I want to be a painter’, and his brother wanted to be a doctor. You see, at a certain age, those hopes and dreams sort of go away.”

“Kids pick pineapples. We hold them, and realize, this is the only way they are making money,” Fallick said.

Every night of the trip, the students delved deeper into discussion over the situation to which they were exposed.

Zimmer said, “We had a vision to give [the residents of Ticuantepe] economic incentive to practice sustainable farming, to give them income to send their kids to school. The last few days, we all just went crazy – ‘we could do this! We could do that! One night during dinner, we just sort of walked off talking.”

All five students will return to Nicaragua this summer to continue research and establish a farmers’ co-op. By setting up its own packaging and distribution plant, La Piña Blanca will eliminate the need and cost for “the middle man” in the trade process, who has thus far kept profits down to seven cents per pineapple for Ticuantepe’s farmers, a change which aims to bring profits up to 30 cents per pineapple. Once in the states, the pineapples will be partially in the hands of a produce broker the company hired. His job will be to find appropriate markets and marketing strategies for the pineapples with the help of the five students.

The first batch of pineapples is projected to begin selling in the United States by the fall of 2006. La Piña Blanca eventually hope to turn profits from the pineapple trade toward investing in Nicaraguan ecotourism.

Archived article by Suzy Gustafson
Sun Staff Writer