The Future of Global Produce Sourcing Is Now
Mexico has become a permanent, major source of produce, along with California and Florida, producing nearly 40% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States.
From January to October 2022, there have been 20.4 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables imported from Mexico, according to Saul Macias, communications coordinator at the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA), Nogales, AZ.
That’s down 3% from last year, Macias says, but adds, “increased consumption of produce and other factors like the lack of water and labor in the U.S., not to mention the weather patterns affecting crops and decreasing supply in the U.S. is leading companies in Mexico to diversify to step up and fulfill the demand.”
Water and labor shortages in California and Arizona figure to make Mexico even more important in the coming decades as a source of fruits and vegetables for consumers throughout North America.
Over the last century, Nogales, AZ, in particular, has taken advantage of its geographical location to build public and private infrastructure that make it uniquely convenient to shop and ship fruits and vegetables headed toward the Midwest and East.
“Currently, from January to October 2022, Nogales represents 24% of all the produce imported from Mexico,” says Macias.
The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA) was created near the end of World War II to promote the free flow of produce into the United States from below the border.
The top 10 major fruit and vegetable crops crossing the border at Nogales and other ports of entry in Arizona, Texas, and California bear witness that Mexico has become established in recent decades as one of the three major produce growing regions for North America, taking its turn along with California and Florida.
Fruits important in Hispanic cuisine like avocados, limes, and mangos are all on that list, according to Macias.
But tomatoes are No. 1 among produce imports entering Nogales from Mexico, according to Macias, followed by cucumbers at No. 3, watermelons at four, bell peppers at six, and squash at No. 9.
Many FPAA members have operations on both sides of the border to offer their North American retailer customers a seamless supply of fruits and vegetables.
“The industry has evolved so that retailers have reliable U.S. importers who basically act as the conduit to access fresh high-quality produce from Mexico and provide customer service expertise, ensuring compliance of all U.S. regulations including food safety, the upmost priority of the industry,” says Macias.
COVID AND BEYOND
Fruit and vegetable border crossings endured many of the cyclic disruptions that impacted produce throughout the U.S. during the pandemic.
“A comparison of January-April data confirms that the beginning of the pandemic, which caused severe reduction in manufacturing trade in March-April 2020, did not immediately affect vegetable trade,” says Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, a senior regional scientist at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, in a recent research article. “The pandemic effects started to show later when demand for fresh vegetables declined as hotel and restaurant businesses shut down. At the same time, many operations in Mexico were forced to lay off laborers as pandemic-related restrictions were imposed. Labor shortages were also reported, as seasonal workers left earlier to go home in southern states fearful that they might not be able to return due to a lockdown.”
She notes the total value of imported tomatoes and peppers during January through April 2022 is still below the 2019 level.
With the pandemic almost in the rear view mirror, the flow of produce through Nogales is returning to the normal dictated by the shifting growing regions in Mexico.
On an annual basis, the imports of fruit account for about one-third of fresh produce imported from Mexico through the Nogales port, according to Pavlakovich-Kochi. “The share of fruit increased in the last decade, from below 30% at the beginning of the century, to 35% in 2021. Grapes and melons are two main fruit sorts, which together comprise more than 70% of all fruit import value on an annual basis.”
Imports of both grapes and melons experienced the highest-ever values (grapes worth $589 million and melons worth $340.3 million) in the pre-pandemic year 2019, she reports.
SINCE WE’RE NEIGHBORS
As part of the North American political economy, produce from Mexico is subject to the tortured conflicts that frequently characterize border politics in the U.S. One recent effort to reduce illegal immigration at the southern border resulted in a massive destruction of fresh fruits and vegetables entering the country from Mexico.
“Within the past year, one of the most fundamental challenges to your business came in the form of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposing 100% inspections of produce trucks,” says Lance Jungmeyer, FPAA president. “When this issue arose, bringing produce imports to a crawl-and-halt for nearly 10 days, FPAA mobilized to scream from the rooftops. In so doing, we tapped into a network of friends in Texas, including within the Border Trade Alliance, to hasten the Biden Administration to intervene. U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a rare statement criticizing the Texas inspections.”
Jungmeyer’s remarks in the FPAA 2022 annual report disclosed the high price this vigilant attempt to deter illegal border crossings exacted on the produce industry.
“In the end, the inspections were lifted, but not before $100 million or more in produce was lost,” he says in the annual report. “The threat remains that inspections might return in Texas or be put in place any other state. FPAA has been working with our network in Arizona and California to communicate the need for policies that do not unnecessarily interrupt the flow of perishable fresh produce.”
There is no guarantee the border crossing snafu that cost $100 million in lost produce will not be repeated.
“The Texas commercial truck inspections were a tragedy, and simply one example of what we can do for our industry. I’m glad that FPAA brought attention to the issue,” says Leonardo Tarriba, chief executive of Nogales-based Farmers Best International and FPAA chairman. “One more time, it was evident that we must keep on educating everyone in the Southwest states and Washington, D.C., that when international trade is hindered, the whole economy suffers.”
Farmers’ Best began as a small cucumber operation in the 1960s and has grown to become a major importer of tomatoes, fruits, vegetables and melons through the ports at Nogales and McAllen, TX.
The ill-fated attempt to inspect produce trucks stands in contrast with prevailing mainstream efforts to encourage trade with Mexico.
“A key trade agreement has been the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which has given buyers the confidence to keep purchasing from Mexico and increasing investments from companies in the U.S. and Canada into Mexico,” says Macias. “Trade agreements have propelled all three countries to work together. It has permitted the industry to evolve as a North American supply chain, allowing to provide for consistent year-round available fresh produce. These three countries presently represent the most important economic block in the world.”
THE SPECIAL CASE OF NOGALES
The first rail car of fresh melons from Mexico crossed the border into the U.S. at Nogales in 1905. Nogales is situated at the northernmost point of a fertile growing region that extends along the west coast of Mexico between the Sierra Madres and the Pacific Ocean.
The Port of Nogales has the advantage of being both relatively far north, closer to markets in the Midwest and East, and also close to major vegetable growing regions in Mexico.
“The majority of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers — the staple of imported fresh produce from Mexico through Arizona ports — are grown mostly in open fields in Sinaloa and thus have been dependent on weather conditions,” says Pavlakovich-Kochi. “Nogales holds first place in imports of all vegetables, tomatoes, and grapes. It holds third place in imports of avocados (HS 0804), and fourth place in imports of all fruits. When vegetables and fruits are combined, the Nogales port holds an overall third place behind Hidalgo and Laredo, but ahead of Otay Mesa, CA.”
“Tomatoes and cucumbers are two principal vegetable commodities imported from Mexico through Arizona ports, accounting for about 40% of the value of all vegetables. Peppers follow at some distance as No. 3 in the overall composition,” says Pavlakovich-Kochi.
By value, tomatoes peak during January and dominate the vegetable imports during the winter season. “Although significantly reduced during summer months, the import of these three vegetables continues by taking advantage of greenhouse production, mainly in Sonora.”
FPAA’s statistics log close to 60 different produce items imported through Nogales over the course of the year.
“Sinaloa is still the largest tomato-producing state in Mexico, and, thanks to geography, Arizona’s ports offer the closest access to the U.S. market. For decades the Nogales port held absolute dominance as the main entry point, earning a popular royal distinction as the king of tomatoes,” says Pavlakovich-Kochi.
In recent years, however, several factors have contributed to an exponential rise in imports of tomatoes through the Texas ports of Hidalgo and Laredo, she adds. “Several central Mexican states, including San Luis Potosí, Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Jalisco, increased production of tomatoes by applying protected agriculture methods (e.g., greenhouses), which allow producers to supplement tomato exports to the U.S. during summer months as well as throughout the rest of the year. Most tomatoes produced in those central regions are exported through Texas ports, principally due to geography and improved transportation infrastructure.”
Over the years, the produce industry in Nogales has built on its geographical advantages with improvements to the port and the development of an extensive infrastructure of wholesale produce businesses.
“The Nogales-Mariposa Arizona Port of Entry is a state-of-the-art port of entry with recent infrastructure improvements leading from the port, that make traffic flow extremely efficient,” says Macias. “The Nogales-Mariposa Arizona Port of Entry is also the most northern point of access for the highway through West Mexico to the U.S.; sourcing produce from so many areas allows the Nogales to maintain a consistent supply of a variety of fresh produce imports.”
The industry has also worked with the port authorities to develop new programs that facilitate the trade of produce. There are ongoing facility improvements, such as a cold room for inspections at the port of entry, and infrastructure improvements leading up to the port of entry, Macias says.
Along with the improved port, The Arizona State Transportation Board announced it will fund the full build-out and expansion of State Route 189 to the tune of $134 million. The FPAA estimates this road improvement will speed round-trip delivery from the port of entry to wholesale warehouses by 20 minutes or more per truck.
In addition to public facility improvements, wholesalers and shippers have built enough in Nogales to make the city a convenient place to shop for fruits and vegetables from Mexico.
The wholesalers are clustered close to each other near the highways a few miles north of Nogales, which makes for convenient shopping by retailer and foodservice customers. It also accommodates the use of numerous wholesalers to fill a single truckload headed north.
The Farmer’s Best facility, for example, is on Highway 19 just north of Nogales. Malena Produce wholesales eggplant, squash, bell peppers, and cucumbers from its facility on Highway 19 a few hundred yards from Farmer’s Best. Del Campo Supreme is across Highway 19 with a line of tomatoes and value-added tomato products like caprese spaghetti squash with roasted tomatoes, fresh tomato and ricotta whole wheat pasta, and bacon, guacamole, and tomato sandwiches.
Export Fresh Company also wholesales produce from its facility on the west side of Highway 19 just north of Nogales. IPR Fresh wholesales peppers, cucumbers, squash, and melons from its facility near Highway 189, which is a few miles west of Highway 19.
La Galera Produce sources vegetables to its headquarters in Chicago directly from company fields in both the U.S. and Mexico.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Like California and Florida, Mexico is seasonal in the volume of mainstream produce commodities shipped into the U.S.
Pavlakovich-Kochi says the high vegetable shipping season usually lasts from November through April. More recently, grapes from Sonora had risen to a top fruit commodity for export to the U.S. markets in short window from early May through mid-July, extending “the high winter season dominated by vegetables into late spring-early summer season dominated by fruit imports.”
“When compared to the last five years we have seen an increase of 24% in produce from Mexico,” says Macias.
Some of the firms growing vegetables in Mexico for consumption in the U.S. can produce specialty items like organic, greenhouse or heirloom tomatoes, he adds.
“Mexico brings all the new highly sought-after items that consumers would like to see at your stores,” says Macias. “Mexican produce is grown in diversified conditions including protected agriculture allowing many innovative varieties. This provides for more availability of high-quality produce and opportunities to enjoy a huge variety of produce that’s not available in the U.S. in the winter.”
• • •
Avocados: An Import Success Story
A majority of the avocados eaten in the U.S. are grown in Mexico and shipped north to American consumers, and Avocados from Mexico (AFM) has become the leading agency promoting this tasty fruit.
“In 2021, avocados were the No. 1 fresh produce commodity export from Mexico to the U.S., with over 2 billion pounds of avocados making the journey,” says Emily Busskohl, senior associate at Weber Sandwick, the public relations representative of Avocados from Mexico. “In the last seven years, avocado imports from Mexico have doubled in volume, fueled by dramatic growth in U.S. demand and equally dramatic growth in the U.S. import economy.”
With an abundant supply and healthy demand, education is the key to driving more sales.
AFM plays a leading role in educating retailers and helping them educate their customers.
“We have learned that the top two barriers to purchase are ripening and preserving the other half of the avocado,” says Busskohl. “AFM has deployed various solutions to drive awareness around how to speed up or slow down ripening, as well as tips and techniques on how to preserve the half avocado.”
It’s also important that retailers are equipped with the knowledge and resources to help build confidence at point of purchase, she adds, and AFM has also developed Avo University, a free online resource that “helps educate produce personnel on how to build their avocado product knowledge and provide strategies to drive customer demand.”