All the lines drawn in the sand this fall around the imperiled tomato suspension agreement between Mexico and the U.S. raised natural questions:
Will growers in Mexico cut back production?
In the end, which will take up more shelf space — tomatoes or legal briefs?
“It’s created a lot of uncertainty,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. “I’ve heard some growers say they’re scaling back because they don’t know what to expect. Others say it’s still normal.”
“You have to wonder if some people are going to shift acreage away from tomatoes into bell peppers or cucumbers,” he said in mid-October. “But these guys all have contracts and expectations from their customers. The best you can do is proceed as if it’s business as normal.”
“We’ve heard some people have planted fewer tomatoes, a little fearful of what might happen to the agreement,” said Mike Aiton, director of marketing at Coachella, Calif.-based Prime Time International. “They’ve planted other things. It sounds like production on other row crops might be up and tomatoes off a little bit.”
John King, vice president of sales at San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, said that by September, when the Department of Commerce announced its preliminary decision to end the agreement, the die was already cast.
“Plantings were all in place in advance,” he said. “There’s been no change in acreage based on the most recent positions of Florida and Mexico. We’re confident there will be an agreement, but it’s a fluid situation.”
By the end of October, Andrew & Williamson was beginning to make commitments for its spring program. The grower-shipper plans six months ahead, sometimes more.
A final decision is expected from the Department of Commerce before April. The Florida Tomato Committee had set the process in motion by asking federal authorities to withdraw from a 1996 anti-dumping duty petition.
Most growers and distributors expect normal tomato supplies this winter out of Mexico. In Culiacan and Baja, winter tomatoes typically start in early December.
Eric Viramontes, chief executive officer at Asociacion Mexicana de Horticulture Protegida AC, said Mexico and Florida should take on a common enemy — low consumption — and not each other.
“Every year people are eating less and less vegetables,” Viramontes said. “The U.S. is barely making the 60-kilo mark annually per capita on consumption. That’s terrible when you see Asian countries at 140 or Europeans at 105, 110. If we could get to 100 kilos, there would be a market for a lot of people. Florida, Mexico, every supplier, has to come together on campaigns for this.”
All winter vegetables and fruits were getting a boost from sufficient supplies of water, which growers have not been able to count on during the droughts of recent seasons. Water tables in Sinaloa returned to normal levels in August, said Greg Cardamone, general manager of vegetables at Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc.
The same was true in Sonora thanks to returning rainfall, said Bill Spence, sales manager at Sandia Distributors, Nogales. Crown Jewels Produce tries to limit water risk by working only with growers who have their own wells.
Watermelons and honeydews will come out of Sonora through mid-December. Just before New Year’s, the southern crops kick in — Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima, said Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Co., Nogales.
But Harrison expects significant volume drops this year in places like Colima — perhaps as high as 25% — as growers there leave melons for more predictable profits in crops like sugar cane.
Squash and bell peppers
At Farmer’s Best International, Rio Rico, Ariz., Italian, yellow and gray squash shipments were under way in October. The crop was normal and expected to go through June, said Steve Yubeta, vice president of sales. Farmer’s Best started bell peppers in mid-November. The company will be packing European cucumbers again after a hiatus, and offering tomatoes on the vine for the first time.
Sandia Distributors started acorn, butternut, spaghetti, kabocha and banana squash by Oct. 26 and will offer those through winter.
Malena Produce, Rio Rico, planned to start colored bell peppers — mostly reds, but also yellow and orange — in southern Sonora in late November. On squash, it goes to December or January in Hermosillo before heading south through March.