University Faculty

Making a Difference in Local Economies

by | Oct 13, 2012

Apples for sale at Wilson Farm. Photo courtesy of Wilson Farm.

One of my favorite things to do in the cold New England months of January and February is to go to Wilson Farm in Lexington, Massachusetts, and marvel at the wide variety of out-of-season fresh fruit. I have always wondered where it comes from, how it made its way to Lexington, and who are the people responsible for it. The labels reveal that many varieties of grapes, berries, apples, peaches, avocados and other fresh fruits and produce come from Chile. Considering the distance between Chile and the United States, the above questions are even more intriguing. It turns out that fruit exports are now one of the top economic drivers in Chile and a model for other countries. But dominance in fruit exports has not just happened by chance. Today’s success in this South American country’s fruit exports is the result of a history of wise investments in human capital and long-term successful international collaborations among universities.

In the 1960s very little fruit was exported from Chile. Principally apples were shipped north to New York and Philadelphia fruit markets in relatively small quantities and of questionable quality. Yet great potential existed.

Climactic conditions in the country vary from moderate Mediterranean valleys ideal for grapes and wine to temperate zones perfect for apples and similar fruits. The fact that seasons are opposite to those of the northern hemisphere also add a huge potential for successful international trade. Production grew and the Chile-U.S. trade relationships strengthened. From 1970 to 1980, exports grew from 50,000 to 260,000 tons of fresh fruit annually. Today, that number has increased tenfold. This year over 2,500,000 tons of fresh fruit will leave Chile’s harbors and airfields, roughly the weight of eight Empire State Buildings. There are nearly 8,000 producers and 750 export companies sending fruit to one hundred countries. Fresh fruit, mostly table grapes, avocados, and apples, makes up 31 percent of the agricultural export market. The largest markets for this production are the United States and Canada. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, Chile fresh fruits made up 9 percent of all fruit and vegetable imports in the United States and is the third largest supplier behind Mexico and Canada. Export growth spike in the early 1980s resulted from new techniques in production, harvest, conservation, transportation and refrigeration.

How did this happen? I recently had the opportunity to speak with Antonio Lizana, the Dean of the Agronomy Faculty of the University of Chile, and one of the leading protagonists in this story. For three solid hours he related one of the most remarkable examples of international educational cooperation in agricultural science. It all began with a chance encounter immediately following his graduation from the University of Chile in 1962. He was in Valparaiso, Chile’s principal port, where he ran into his former professor testing apple density to determine if they could survive the long journey to market in the United States. After the professor explained details of harvest timing, variety resistance, time to market, etc., Lizana exclaimed, “Professor, why didn’t you teach us that at the University?” From that moment, Lizana became fascinated by all that happens from the time crops are harvested until they reach someone’s table.

His work eventually spurred the incredible growth of the fruit export market in Chile. He introduced a series of post-harvest technical visits to California for more than 400 producers in a period of 14 years. These visits gave them an opportunity to see how post-harvest systems worked and to gain deep understanding of the latest processes as well as the value of new technologies. For example, they saw how strawberries are cooled to zero degrees Celsius in the field and placed in special containers so that they will arrive fresh five days later in New York City. They also observed how Chilean fruit arrives in U.S. ports and how it compared in quality to other products. They understood first-hand how fruits were sold and the quality demanded by international markets. These visits resulted in the introduction of the latest in post-harvest technology in Chile such as hydro-cooling, new refrigerated container technology, modified atmospheres, and new marketing systems. Lizana collaborated with producers to introduce these latest technologies and processes in Chile and, together, they transformed the fruit export industry.

But the story started back in the 1960s, when Lizana as a young student found there was no post-harvest biology and technology program in Chile. He won an Emery H. Powell Scholarship to study for a master’s degree in post-harvest horticulture at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. When he graduated in 1965, he returned as a faculty member to the University of Chile. His arrival coincided with the beginning of the Chile-California program, a groundbreaking initiative born out of the Alliance for Progress early in 1963 after President Kennedy suggested the initiative to Governor Edmund Brown as a way to harness technical expertise of California’s leading universities to assist developing nations in the Americas. Under this program experts in many disciplines came to Chile from California universities, and eventually dozens of Chileans obtained advanced degrees in California. University of California Davis sent 11 experts in fruit production and export to Chile. As a newly arrived expert in the field, Lizana soon became one of the leading Chilean counterparts. He established a research and teaching program in post-harvest technology at the University of Chile; now students like him did not have to go abroad. Under Lizana’s direction, the university also established the first postharvest laboratory in the country. Within a year, both initiatives were up and running. The new lab studied factors that influence the quality of fruit, the right moment to harvest fruit for export, types of climate control in storage, and how fruits deteriorate when they are exported. Most importantly, he applied these findings to the fledgling fruit export market through field-based research and outreach, reflecting his experience in Washington State and California’s agricultural extension system.

By 1968, then Governor Ronald Reagan terminated the California-Chile agreement. The Ford Foundation stepped in and re-established the program with generous new financing focusing on fortifying human resources. That same year, Lizana won a Ford grant to UC Davis, where he completed his Ph.D. in botany in 1974. After turning down job offers in post-harvest technology research in Mexico and as director of the prestigious Escuela Agrícola Panamericana at Zamorano in Honduras, Lizana returned to Chile to become the director of the Agricultural Production Department of the University of Chile. He created the Center for Post-harvest Studies that offered intensive courses for hundreds of Chilean producers. The Center published guides and newsletters on all aspects of post-harvest issues. As a professor, Lizana supervised dozens of theses and research projects. He set up a second post-harvest laboratory at Chile’s Catholic University. Through his work at the university he has had a direct influence on more than 900 Chilean researchers in horticulture and post-harvest studies. Countless other producers and export companies profited handsomely from his work as a professor, researcher and author.

In recognition of these accomplishments Lizana has received many honors, including the prestigious Golden Branch from the College of Engineers of Chile, and the presidency of the Agronomic Society of Chile and of the American Society for Tropical Horticulture. His reputation has grown far and wide both in Chile and abroad. He has traveled to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa, Spain, and Mexico to share his expertise on post-harvest management as a consultant and as a presenter in conferences.

This international experience reached its farthest point when Lizana was asked to duplicate his initiatives in Egypt under a joint program of the Egyptian government and USAID. He spent seven years there with a team of experts from Chile, establishing a successful post-harvest infrastructure that included upending many long-held agricultural practices in the fruit industry. He organized technical visits to the United States, Mexico, and Chile and trained 60 exporters and technicians at the University of Chile. Under his direction, Egypt’s fruit exports to Europe grew from 100 tons per year to 40,000 tons from 1995 to 2000.

I asked Lizana what made a difference in his career and what influenced him most as the leader in this revolution. He said that the experience at Washington State opened his eyes about what universities should do to provide opportunities to students to learn and to innovate. There he learned how universities worked with producers through extension programs and practical research. This experience became a model for him when he returned to Chile, where he changed his own faculty and applied new technologies that transformed an entire industry.

It may be hard to say that Lizana would not have contributed equally to Chile’s agricultural development had he not gone abroad early in his career. But there is a very strong correlation between his view of the world and his success as a leader. This international view, possibly a level of comfort in international dealings, began when he was a student at the University of Chile, where he led Chilean students to the United States as part of the Experiment in International Living. This and his first-hand experience in agricultural extension at Washington State University, and his close professional and personal relations with UC Davis, surely provided a firm foundation for Lizana’s remarkable career.

International universities and their leaders are the key to multiplying this story. The current trend of accelerating international post-graduate studies through programs like Brazil’s Science Without Borders, Becas Chile, and Peru’s new program to send hundreds of future leaders abroad will contribute to a better future. Other efforts such as the famous Chile-California provide a successful model for the recently signed Chile-Massachusetts plan. The Chile fruit story provides concrete evidence of the exceptional value of international academic programs. They are the catalysts to create many others like Antonio Lizana.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

Ned Strong is the Program Director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Regional Office in Santiago, Chile. He can be reached at ned_strong@harvard.edu.

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