Despite ups and downs over the course of his career, Eduardo Turbay of Las Martinetas isn't afraid to try new things.

By Dario Bard

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Eduardo Turbay doesn’t hold back when it comes to discussing the challenges he has faced over the course of his 17 years in Argentina’s agricultural sector. He candidly shares first-hand accounts of government corruption and international smuggling.

But despite the hard knocks, he isn’t shy about taking on new challenges. In 2011, when producers from Rosario de la Frontera in the Province of Salta approached him with a mung bean crop they were having trouble selling, Turbay took on the challenge of finding buyers in Southeast Asia. Since then, he has been involved in Argentina’s fledgling but growing mung bean industry and has established relationships in three markets so far.

“Mung beans are a good option for Argentine growers looking to diversify or plant an alternate crop,” he says. “We are finding new markets every year and demand is increasing.”

Turbay’s tenacity is also on display when it comes to more monumental, industry-wide projects. Like many others in Argentina’s pulse industry, he recognizes the lack of good, solid crop information to guide management decisions.

“Right now, the big problem Argentine growers face is the dearth of reliable, timely information,” explains Turbay. “MinAgri (Argentine Ministry of Agriculture) provides some information, but it’s issued well after the fact. It isn’t actionable. So in Argentina, the information that is available can’t be used to base decisions on because it is either unreliable or out of date.”

Turbay has set about tackling this deficiency. His company, Las Martinetas, is looking to finance the creation of a specialty crop information network. For this purpose, Turbay has teamed up with a computer programmer to create downloadable software to enable growers to quickly enter information into a database and thus help create a timely picture of the reality on the ground.

IFT spoke with Turbay in greater detail about this IT project as well as his experiences with pulse crops, particularly mung beans.

IFT: Tell me about yourself. How did you get your start in the pulse industry?

Eduardo Turbay: I’m from the Province of Tucuman. I’ve lived here practically my entire life. I studied economics at the National University of Tucuman and got involved in agriculture through my father, who ran a fleet of cargo trucks. In the ´90s through 2000, the ag sector wasn’t doing well, and that’s when my dad started getting involved through clients in that line of work.

IFT: Tell me about your agri-business career and how Las Martinetas got its start.

Eduardo Turbay: I’ve been in agri-business 17 years. At first, with my father, we bought wheat and soy that we fractionated into flour and oil, which we would then sell under our own label. Later, looking to diversify, we began planting lots in the area of Quimili. By our third year, we were growing soy and black beans on a good number of hectares. In July 2008, after the government’s efforts to impose new taxes on the agriculture sector were defeated in Congress, our lots in Santiago del Estero were seized, together with the soy harvest, our machinery and our crops. It was three months before we could re-enter our lots. When we did, the soy harvest was missing and the machinery was destroyed. We salvaged what we could and to this day our lawsuit on the matter has yet to be resolved.

That was a big blow. I was forced to file bankruptcy and start all over. In 2010, I began working for Agrofederal SA, a grain storage and export company that focused on the big commodities: soy, corn, wheat and sorghum. I was in charge, and still am, of Agrofederal’s business in northwest Argentina, including exports. From our work there, we decided to get into the specialty crop business. Although there were already solid, well-known specialty crop companies in that area, we felt we had the possibility of developing a different kind of business model: working with producers to grow crops based on demand. Under this model, our international buyers give us a sense of what they need from us and we supply growers here with seed, guidance and an assurance that we will purchase the entire crop at a profit to the grower of at least 30%. In the world of specialty crops, where everything is in flux, this model gives the grower a certain sense of income stability.

So that’s when Las Martinetas was founded. It was established to both grow and export specialty crops. In 2011, we exported 6,000 MT of black beans, 1,200 MT of alubias and 1,500 MT of red beans to Brazil. In 2012, we fell on hard times; 30% of the bean crop was damaged by frost and the crop in general was affected by drought. Because of that experience, we began looking to diversify our production, adding new crops like chickpeas. In that respect, our timing was off, because chickpea prices dropped and several growers had become disillusioned with the crop.

Then came the historic drought of 2013, with a bean harvest 40% below normal; practically no chickpeas were grown in northwest Argentina. Making matters worse, the black market became very active, especially in terms of trade with Brazil. Smugglers would buy product directly from growers, offering them dollars. This made a significant difference to the grower because they could trade dollars in at an unofficial exchange rate (the result of government restrictions on the purchase of foreign currency) that was 30% higher than the official exchange rate which companies like mine were required to honor.

Consequently, we began to plant more of other products that weren’t competing on the black market. That’s when we really got going with mung beans, which we had been growing since 2011. In 2013, mung beans is what we worked with the most. We bought 3,000 MT from growers in northwest Argentina and another 1,700 MT from growers in Cordoba.

IFT: What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the industry over the course of your career?

Eduardo Turbay: Our buyers are demanding higher quality. You can see this, for instance, in the demand for larger-sized black beans. Also, Argentina has made advances in the area of genetics. But in this respect, we need a law to protect seed sellers. A friend of mine told me he takes a photo of the bag of seeds he sells, together with the grower who is buying them, because otherwise he’d never see them again. There are growers out there who buy seed initially and then generate their own from then on without paying royalties. This makes it difficult for someone to develop this technology because with buyers like these, they won’t see a return on their investment. And its not just a law that we need. All users throughout the value chain should be responsible and understand that paying for seed is, in the end, an investment in themselves.

IFT: Tell me about mung production in Argentina and your involvement there.

Eduardo Turbay: Mung beans have been grown commercially in Argentina over the past eight years. In the case of Las Martinetas, we’ve been growing mung beans for three years, ever since producers from Rosario de la Frontera approached us about helping them sell their crop. That was in 2011. In December of that same year, we approached farmers in the Rosario de la Frontera area about growing mung beans, but many were reluctant, seeing it as difficult to sell. But when we offered to buy their corp on a contract-basis that assured them international buyers, they began to see it as a possible substitute for soy, which was suffering from a severe pest infestation. So, in 2012, we had 2,700 hectares planted. In 2013, that increased to 4,800 hectares,but because of the drought, 800 hectares were completely lost and yields were low at 400 kg/ha. To boot, those who planted mung beans in 2013 took notice of high black bean prices at the time, and that made it difficult to convince them to plant mung beans again this campaign. We ended up planting 2,300 hectares for 2014 and our growers are happy. Mung bean prices are strong on high demand, at about US$ 300 higher than black bean prices. Black bean prices are down due to supply and demand. Too many growers planted this year because they took notice of the high prices in 2013 and thought they’d see those same prices this year; now they are not happy because the prices they are being offered are much lower than they expected.

One of the arguments we use to convince growers to plant mung beans is that mung enjoys steadier prices because it has more markets. We sell mung both for sprouting and consumption, with the former going to Europe and the latter to India. There is huge potential here. In the consumption market alone, we have clients who are ordering more than 500 containers per year.

But the biggest challenge facing Argentina’s mung production is the need to invest in quality seed. The biggest quality issues we are seeing are a result of inadequate documentation of the seed variety being planted. At Las Martinetas, we are looking to import seed from Australia and other regions so that we can test performance. This is no easy task and it requires significant investment to monitor crops for three years. As I mentioned before, without a law protecting the rights of seed sellers, there’s a lot of risk in this sort of investment. Nonetheless, we plan to initially enter into seed contracts with producers we know and trust.

IFT: I understand you are working on the creation of an information database. Could you tell me about it?

Eduardo Turbay: For some time now, there has been a need to improve statistical data on Argentine specialty crops. To address that need, I’ve been working with a cousin of mine, a computer programmer, to develop downloadable software for growers to document information on planted hectares, expected yields, actual yields, harvest date and major events (such as pest and disease outbreaks, drought, rains, etc.). The information would be uploaded to the database anonymously and become available for others to consult. The idea is to also include data from other institutions, like the experimental station in Obispo Colombres in Tucuman and INTA, as well as industry associations.

At the moment, we are still in the developmental stage and compiling a list of entities that might be interested in joining the project. We are looking for possible financing from both the private and public sectors, because the idea is to make this information public so that it is available for decision making.

IFT: How do you think Argentina might take advantage of 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYOP)?

Eduardo Turbay: Honestly, I’m not sure, but it occurs to me that, because Argentine consumption of pulses is low, we may be able to promote our products as a source of natural protein that is GMO-free and healthy for the consumer. For example, today in Argentina we have a vegetarian version of milanesa that substitutes soy for meat. There is also a version that uses chickpeas instead. The soy version is very popular even though soy is genetically modified; the chickpea version, meanwhile, is relatively unknown. So maybe IYOP could serve to help promote those sorts of products.

IFT: What message would you like to deliver to IFT readers?

Eduardo Turbay: At Las Martinetas, we like to build all sorts of working relationships, with colleagues, growers, brokers, you name it. Should anyone need anything from northwest Argentina, they shouldn’t hesitate to contact us. We will be happy to help anyway we can.