El Proyecto Integral del Riego para la Agroexportación en el Arco Seco is the grand name given to a project set up three years ago by the Panamanian ministry for agricultural development (Mida), with the involvement of Israeli agronomist Tahal Consulting Engineers Ltd.

The aim was to breathe new life into an area more used to growing other crops, but which is naturally well suited to melon production. So much so that this season growers on the project are expecting record-breaking yields, putting them ahead of competitors in Brazil, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala,Venezuela and Ecuador.

There are some 400 growers involved in the project and 2,100ha have been equipped with the necessary drip irrigation systems. Producers also benefit from three newly installed packhouses with cold storage, two of which have blast chilling facilities to extract field-heat from fruit immediately post-harvest.

European buyers are already cottoning on to the possibilities offered by the Azuero producers who now have customers in the UK, the Netherlands and Spain and find their fruit in some of the leading supermarkets in those countries. Their biggest opportunity is in Galia, which is not as widely accepted in the US marketplace and therefore complements the rest of their offer.

The key, says Diana Pozo of the centre for commercial information established at Mida's premises in Chitré by Tahal, is in the technology the Israeli consultants have applied. 'Tahal has developed fertilisation and irrigation technology which have meant that export yields of Galia are now running at 6,000 cartons a hectare and at the same time they have managed to overcome problems of poor net formation on the skin,' she explained.

However it is not just Galia that is grown in the Arco Seco of the Azuero peninsula. The project has also seen plantings of Piel de Sapo, Honeydew, yellow and seeded and seedless watermelons. Honeydew is sent almost exclusively to the US market along with watermelon, while European destinations receive all other varieties as well as watermelons.

The season runs from the end of December until mid-May, although with a two to three week sea voyage, produce does not usually arrive in the UK until mid-January. All shipments are containerised and the cool-chain is continuous.

Producers are also well geared up for Eurep-Gap. 'We have given courses and distributed information on the Eurep-Gap protocols to the producers in the area,' said Pozo. 'And external auditor Latu Sistemas has offered training and carried out mock inspections at producers' facilities.' The project has taken into account not just the soil and climate in the region, but also the producers themselves who are all small scale operators with five to 20 hectares each. It also allows producers to form export organisations to work directly with importers overseas so cutting out at least one link in the chain between grower and consumer. And through the centre staffed by Diana Pozo in Chitré, there is a two-way flow of market and production information as well as research findings and pricing data.

The largest producer-exporter organisation is Exportadores de Azuero with 143 producer members. It grows 70ha of Galia, 40ha of white Honeydew and 45ha of tabasco chillies. In addition to its melon offer, the organisation's growers also produce chillies for export and squash and tomatoes for the national market. 'Unlike melon production in the sources we compete with, there are no multi-nationals involved,' said Diomedes Jaén, president of Exportadores de Azuero. 'As producers we have full rights and control over our crops. The project gives us access to the best varieties and technology and we are really at the forefront.' Exportadores de Azuero markets its product under the same name, and for the time being it allows another exporters' association, Río La Villa to use the brand too. Río La Villa has 35 producer members all growing seedless watermelon for export to the US and the EU. The association hopes to extend its product offer to chillies, for example. 'That way we would be able to use the packing facilities throughout the year,' explained the group's general manager Hugo Calderón. 'We are open to demands and suggestions from our customers on that.' The season is now in full swing and so far more than 80 containers have been shipped to the US and Europe from the project which is also transforming the local economy. 'Thousands of jobs depend on the sector now,' said Jaén. 'We have whole communities with schools, universities and hospitals. It is like a world apart.'