Juan Laborin
Juan Laborin

Defining the role of the Sonora Grape Growers Association could be a difficult enough chore.

Even more challenging is to define the responsibilities of general manager Juan Laborin. He likens his role as to that of a fireman of sorts.

“It’s difficult to define what the association does. But whatever fire starts, we try to come in and suffocate it,” said Laborin, 54.

Laborin heads the association based in Hermosillo, Mexico, that represents around 90% of table grape production in Mexico and 95% of the country’s exported table grapes, shipped to 30 countries worldwide.

Laborin’s work shifts unpredictably. One day he is organizing inspections at the U.S./Mexican border, the next he is exploring ways to improve the industry’s environmental practices.

Recently, his priority has been lobbying against Mexican tax reform that he says would damage the Mexican produce industry — meaning he has spent countless hours studying tax legislation and putting in valuable face time with Mexican senators.

“Today is tax reform; next week is another reform. The challenge is to keep the industry alive with profits,” Laborin said.

In Laborin’s opinion, though his job is unpredictable, one consistent factor is that he is working in growers’ best interests.

“We are the middle person for the grower — to do the things that he can’t,” Laborin said.

Laborin deserves much credit for the Sonora table grape industry’s major growth in recent years, said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz.

“The Mexican table grape industry has grown three- or four-fold over the last 15 years. He has organized growers in methods, food safety and marketing,” Jungmeyer said.

One example of Laborin’s organizational skills comes in his contribution to the Sonora Spring Grapes Summit. The season for Sonora table grapes is only six weeks, but the association builds anticipation by inviting guests to tour the fields and attend speaker presentations.

“The coordination it takes to plan the summit is incredible. And Juan is the ringleader of that,” Jungmeyer said.

In the future, Laborin looks to achieve some lofty goals. Laborin wants 100% food safety certification for all of his growers, which he is also working toward as president of Mexico Supreme Quality.

The association is exploring food safety methods to reduce the grower’s carbon footprint while maintaining strict quality standards, he said.