Jalapeno peppers, tomatillos and Mexican gray squash are coming across the border in record numbers. And organic vegetables, grown in Mexico and shipped through Nogales to US consumers, are also reaching record volumes. But most of all, Mexico remains established as the major source of vegetables to the US in the old months of late winter and early spring.
Before the warm weather brings an abundance of vegetables from the fields of California and Florida, the warmer climate below the border yields an early spring harvest that reaches all of the US and even Canada.
This flow of tomatoes, peppers, squash and eggplant, much of it coming through Nogales, AZ., has increased steadily for more than a decade and shows signs that it will continue to increase. “I will say a 10 percent annual increase in vegetables out of Mexico is not out of the question,” says Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, AZ.
The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, FPAA, established 67 years ago represents more than 100 firms growing produce in Mexico and shipping it to the US and Canada. The fields, shade houses and greenhouses of Mexico produce the familiar range of vegetables produced later in the US, including a growing supply of early season organic vegetables.
And with the possible exception of a handful of ethnic varieties, vegetables from Mexico are generally best merchandised the same as vegetables from the US, according to Steve Yubeta, vice president for sales at Farmer’s Best International, Rio Rico, AZ.
Farmer’s Best has been growing tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash in Mexico since the 1960s. Protected agriculture in general, and greenhouse tomato production in particular, has become so predominant in Mexico, however, that retailers can put together an entire section of greenhouse tomato varieties.
The Protected Category
There has been, and continues to be an extraordinary boom in shade house and greenhouse vegetable production in Mexico.
“We’re still seeing a reduction of field production, and an increase in greenhouse production. You get higher yields, more consistent quality and a safer product. The cost is higher, but the benefit in terms of quality and consistency is worth it. In terms of winter production, greenhouse grown has already caught up with field grown,” says JJ Padillo, director of diversified products at Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, CA.
Calavo is a major producer of greenhouse tomatoes in Sinaloa on the west coast of Mexico, as well as being the most prominent avocado grower-shipper in the US.
There are many reasons for the increase in protected agriculture in Mexico. Some US buyers see protection from the environment and insect pests as a way to provide higher quality product. And some Mexican growers see protected agriculture as a way to achieve higher yields and quality, while using less water and fertilizer.
But one consequence of this powerful trend in Mexican production is that US retailers can put together an entire section of relatively affordable greenhouse tomato varieties.
“Now you have a whole new category of tomatoes. You have greenhouse beef steak tomatoes, greenhouse tomatoes on the vine, greenhouse heirloom tomatoes and greenhouse Romas,” Padillo says.
Production of vegetables under protection has matured to the point in Mexico that it is a category of its own. “We’re seeing more protected agriculture every year; we’re seeing more greenhouse every year. It’s almost a different market. It’s different product and they’re marketed different,” says Jorge Quintero Jr., managing member of Grower Alliance, Rio Rico, AZ.
Grower Alliance is an Arizona firm that partners with growers in Northwest Mexico. Much of the protected agriculture in Mexico is not greenhouse production but the less expensive and less ambitious control over the environment that comes from shade house production.
Even shade houses, however, make it easier to protect the product from insect pests and other environmental challenges to quality.
“Very few people ask for shade house product. They just ask for quality, and the shade house lets us supply consistent quality. If you don’t have the quality you don’t get the purchase order,” says Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer at Ciruli Brothers LLC, Tubac, AZ.
Ciruli Brothers is a third generation family firm best known for its patented Champagne Mango and also produces a wide variety of tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers.
“More than any shift in varieties, people are looking for consistent quality, and that’s why producers are using protected agriculture. The push really started 10 years ago, but the last two or three years it really picked up,” agrees Matt Mandel, vice president for sales and marketing at SunFed, Rio Rico, AZ.
SunFed is an Arizona-based grower-shipper of tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers and eggplant. All of the SunFed cucumbers, Roma tomatoes and colored peppers from Mexico are grown under protection. “There is a bias against imported fruits and vegetables, so we are held to a higher standard. Protected agriculture will continue to grow. It’s a big investment up from but you get better yields and better quality.” Mandel says.
One possible benefit from shade house production might be longer retail shelf life. “Some customers are asking for more of the shade cloth products, and some aren’t. It is protected from the environment and people think the shelf life should be longer. Demand for shade cloth has been up the last two or three years,” Yubeta says.
One quality attribute of protected agriculture is the perception that shade cloth or greenhouses protect against threats to food safety. “The quality has improved quite a bit with the greenhouses, and it’s safer than the field grown product,” says Alberto Maldonado, general manager at Melones Internacional, Nogales, AZ.
Melones Internacional is a diversified vegetable grower-shipper that markets under the Plain Jane brand name. Producers below the border see assurances of food safety as an essential part of doing business in the US.
“We guarantee food safety with our Mexican produce the same way we do with our domestic program; food safety doesn’t know borders. Our program is science based and goes way beyond what the law requires. Customers expect that, and they should. Any body who can’t meet food safety standards is going by the wayside,” said a vegetable industry safety expert who preferred to remain anonymous.
Producers on both sides of the border see food safety as a challenge that they share with each other.
“When it comes to food safety we don’t compete; we’re on the same team. Producers have gradually been getting the message about Good Agricultural Practices since 1998. The Food Safety Modernization Act was a quantum shift in the industry, and retailers started demanding it. Our message is to the gatekeepers, the retailers. We assume they get it to the customers. We’ve got the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US and Mexico’s got stuff that’s similar,” the food safety specialist said.
The superior control over food quality and food safety gives protected agriculture an advantage with many retailers. A lot of times the greenhouse or shade house has cache with the buyers. The control over the environment gives you more uniform control over the product,” Jungmeyer says.
Although shade house or greenhouse product is usually perceived as having more uniform high quality, it does not always command a premium price. “You usually don’t get a premium for shade clothe grown, and it is challenging some times,” Yubeta says.
A handful of specialty vegetable items may command a premium if they are produced under protection.
“There are some specialty items that get a premium for greenhouse or shade house product, but most products don’t,” says Gil Munguia, division manager at Giumarra Companies, Rio Rico, AZ.
Giumarra is a 70-year-old grower-shipper of a wide range of fruit and vegetable crops. But there is so much protected agriculture in Mexico that the laws of supply and demand frequently dictate that retailers do not need to pay a higher price for the product.
“You try to get a higher price for the shade house product, but the market is the market. Some times you can, and some times you can’t,” Ciruli says.
But even when the product does not bring a premium, the investment in shade house or greenhouse production offers other returns for the growers. “The shade cloth provides bigger yields, better pest control and better quality,” says Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Company Distributors, Nogales, AZ.
Al Harrison Company ships vegetables and melons from Mexico and California throughout the US and Canada. For the producers, the single biggest return on their steep investment in protected agriculture is far greater yields.
“Shade house is the way more product is grown. You get more product for the acre,” says Paul Guy, owner and president of PDG Produce, Rio Rico, AZ.
“We’re seeing more bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers out of shade houses. It’s been growing over the last decade. The infrastructure is a high cost up front, and the seeds are more expensive, too, but over the long haul you get better yields,” Ciruli says.
Most of the higher yields come from extending the season by using shade cloth or greenhouses to modify the climate.
“You have a lot of people extending the season. They used to finish up in February, but now they go until May. We go from October to the end of April, or beginning of May,” says Jaime Chamberlain, president of J-C Distributing Inc., Nogales, AZ.
J-C Distributing has been shipping fruits and vegetables from Mexico to the US for four decades. “In terms of crops there will be an abundance of high quality greenhouse tomatoes coming out of Western Mexico from late January until the first of June,” says Padillo.
The shade houses and greenhouses have pushed peak Mexican production of many major “spring” vegetables well into summer. “You’ll continue to see more production in greenhouses and shade houses. Some of the producers have invested in these structures because they extend the growing season in some regions of Mexico. It extends some spring vegetables into summer like tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and peppers,” says Jungmeyer.
Many producers report that protected agriculture has allowed them to extend their season by months.
“The main items here are tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers. There has not been that much change in the season with cucumbers, but with bell peppers and tomatoes we used to finish in late April or early May, and now we go until June or July,” Maldonado says.
The protection shade houses offer against early summer heat has extended the season the season for cucumbers and peppers.
“There has been an increase in shade house growing in Mexico and it’s extending the season for bell peppers, colored bells, cukes and Euro cukes,” Chamberlain says.
Protected agriculture also allows growers to reduce key inputs like water and fertilizer, which saves both money and the environment. “We have water issues in Mexico, too, and protected agriculture saves water. We are 90 percent protected agriculture with greenhouses and shade houses. Protected agriculture uses less water and less fertilizer. The initial investment is tough, but after that the yields are a lot better. We also use drip irrigation on all of our farms,” Munguia says.
The decision on whether to go with shade cloth or the most expensive greenhouse option depends largely on the local climate.
“The protected agriculture is not one size fits all. In Sinaloa you see more shade houses, but in some other areas where it’s colder, they use the plastic. Protected agriculture from Mexico has really boomed. More growers are using shade houses or greenhouses to increase productivity. We’re seeing growers using protected agriculture to get better quality, yields and a longer season,” says Ricardo Crisanti, general manager of Wholesum Family Farms, Nogales, AZ.
Wholesum Family Farms is a third generation family firm and was a pioneer among organic operations in Sinaloa, Mexico. They market under the Wholesum Harvest brand name.
The advantages of protected agriculture in terms of yields, consistency and efficient use of resources is making it more popular everywhere in the world.
“Greenhouse production is not just growing in Mexico, it’s growing in every part of the world as people take advantage of the technologies,” Padillo says.
Although the environmental controls in greenhouse production can require significant amounts of energy, shade cloth production in Mexico is mostly at ambient temperatures, according to Mandel.
Ethnic Has Gone Mainstream
The continuing increase in the Hispanic population in the US has brought with it an ongoing move into the mainstream of a number of vegetable varieties that were ethnic specialty items not that long ago.
“To my way of thinking gray squash and Jalapenos have already gone mainstream. And because of the number of Mexican restaurants all over the country, tomatillos have gone mainstream, too,” says Rod Sbraiga, director of sales and marketing at Tricar Sales, Inc., Nogales, AZ.
Tricar is a field and greenhouse vegetable operation that began in Mexico nearly seven decades ago.
Asked how many of those items you would expect to find in a good supermarket in say, Minneapolis for example, he thought there would be a small section of Jalapenos, maybe some gray squash, and who knows about tomatillos.
There’s always going to be a certain market for things like Jalapenos and tomatillos because of the large Hispanic population in the US. In south Texas and California there’s a market for gray squash,” Sbraiga says.
Producers report that demand for these ethnic vegetables is both strong and growing. “You always have demand for ethnic vegetable items like tomatillos and gray squash. That demand is going up,” Guy says.
Most supermarkets have some selection of Jalapeno peppers, and many also carry tomatillos. And the number three squash, trailing only zucchini and, barely, yellow squash, is … Mexican gray squash.
“One item that is starting to draw interest is the Mexican gray squash. You can find it all over the country, and it’s starting to reach the mainstream,” Yubeta says.
Gray squash, also known as calabacita, looks a little like zucchini but packs a powerful punch in the flavor department. Mexican gray squash will probably grow in popularity as more consumers get their first taste.
“We’ll have gray squash as well. It’s growing in popularity because it’s a great tasting squash. It’s the number three squash heading toward number two, behind only zucchini,” Munguia says.
Giumarra is shipping what used to be considered Hispanic ethnic vegetables as far north as Canada. “We’re pretty big into the hot peppers and tomatillos. It used to be an ethnic market, but it’s gone mainstream. We ship them to everywhere in the US, and Canada, too,” Munguia says.
Other suppliers also report increased demand for hot peppers and tomatillos. “We’re seeing more demand for ethnic varieties like tomatillos and Jalapenos than we have in the past,” Ciruli says.
Organic Is Still Growing
When the economy went south in 2008 producers of higher value specialty crops like organic vegetables in Mexico, as in the US, were anxious that they could face a slump.
That slump never happened.
“Our growth has been 20 percent a year since 2008. We do have people who are committed about sustainable agriculture, and about what they put in their body. Our focus is on the organic niche. We’re a grower-shipper; we have farms in Mexico with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash and egg plant,” Crisanti says.
He did have a few nervous moments when the consensus of opinion in the produce industry was that organic product would take a hit during the recession.
“I’ve been here since 1999. We were growing at a pretty good rate until 2008, then we heard the demand would go more to staple items, to value items. I was concerned because I’m in a niche. The decline didn’t happen. The organic demand was not a fad, or a quick trend. We have consumers who are committed about sustainable agriculture and about what goes into their bodies,” Crisanti says.
Other specialty produce items have also begun to put 2008 in the rear view mirror. “There’s more cut fruit than there used to be. It went down in 2008 with the recession, but it’s been picking up,” says Miguel Suarez, owner of MAS Melons and Grapes, Nogales, AZ.
MAS Melons is a fruit grower-shipper in Mexico selling around the world. Other producers of organic vegetables in Mexico also report that they have not felt the downturn they expected. “We do organic Euro cukes, and it seems to have held fairly firm,” Sbraiga says. He suspects as people look for more affordable options the market for organics could soften, but it hasn’t yet.
The demand for organic vegetables has remained so strong, in fact, that some major producers are increasing their organic production in Mexico.
“The demand for organics has stayed up there. I thought with the economy it would suffer, but it hasn’t. That market segment has continued to grow. Our organic production is up this year by 15 percent. We’re not a huge organic grower, but we want to be,” says Munguia from Giumarra.
One of the reasons the market for organic vegetables keeps increasing is the cost differential for producing organically keeps decreasing.
“Pricing on organic has continually gone down, and that has brought more people to organic produce. We are always looking to get our yields close to or the same as conventional. There are some commodities that are yielding close to conventional, others that are 20 to 22 percent lower,” Crisanti says.
The organic producers in Mexico, as in the US, are continually working to make the bottom line work with prices that are creeping closer and closer to conventional prices.
“The rules of supply and demand apply to the organic industry. There is no guarantee that organic vegetables will get a premium; the premiums are not guaranteed,” Crisanti says.
Stable Source of the Staples
Although Mexican production has established niches in both specialty and organic vegetables, Mexico has above all else become a stable source of the staple spring vegetables.
“We do the same items we have been – squash, green beans, hot and bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, honeydew melons, water melons and mini water melons,” Quintero says. Other producers also report that their staple of vegetables has changed little in recent years.
“We have the same items as always – tomatoes, all the tomato products, peppers, colored peppers, cucumbers and eggplant,” Guy says. After tomatoes and peppers, squash tops the list of spring vegetables coming in through Nogales.
“We’re very much involved with zucchini and yellow squashes. I’m pretty much involved in that in the spring, and it’s increased in the last few years. That’s a big product for the spring deal,” Chamberlain says.
Cucumbers are also a major vegetable coming out of Mexico in the spring. “Mexico is the leader for winter cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes and soft and hard squash,” Sbraiga says.
Major producers try to offer a full line of vegetables to fill the late winter and spring slot. “We’re going to have a full line of vegetables coming in, with cucumbers, Euro cukes, tomatoes, peppers, colored peppers and squash. And we have a large crop of seedless watermelons. We’ve also got a big grape deal coming up as well with proprietary varieties,” Munguia says.
Retailers have come to rely on vegetables coming out of Mexico just as they have relied on vegetables out of different growing regions in the US.
“The product we have out of Mexico has been a strong contributor to the entire category. You get high quality, high flavor and high consistency. Retailers are finding they can count on it, so they can promote it,” Padillo says.
The Florida Connection
The length of the season, and the volume of vegetables coming from Mexico, depends largely on the weather … in Florida. “In the spring we’ll see what the cold weather does to Florida, that’s the big deal,” Quintero says.
Early signs were that US retailers could rely heavily on Mexico for spring vegetables again this year. “It all depends on what the domestic US producers are able to do. There’s already been a freeze in Florida. There are also labor shortages in the southeast, like Georgia and Alabama, that could affect the supply of vegetables,” Jungmeyer says.
In recent years cold weather in major US production areas has led to increased demand for vegetables from Mexico. “There was plenty of demand the last few years because of freezes in Arizona and Florida,” Yubeta says.
This year the weather even farther south has already complicated the supply of some late winter fruit varieties. “They had some out of season rains in Central America, and cold weather in Southern Mexico that affected the supply. By the second week in March, supply should pick up,” Suarez says.
The supply will pick up, and Mexico will be the major source of produce for US consumers until the weather lets Florida and California step in.
“You still have tomatoes, bells and cucumbers coming in but they slow down in April, and end in May. They stop when the competition from Florida and California picks up,” Harrison said. Among the spring fruits there has been a large increase in watermelon acreage in Mexico, according to Harrison, and grapes have always been a big item in the spring.