One challenge at the port is the lack of an enclosed, refrigerated secondary inspection space on the docks. ( File Photo )

Fresh produce continues to flow relatively smoothly through the Nogales-Mariposa Port of Entry, although some challenges do remain at the major border crossing of the southwestern U.S., produce suppliers and industry leaders say.

The facility, built in the early 1970s, got a facelift in 2016, but even that project didn’t meet every need, said Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing with Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Farms.

“The challenge at the port since they redid it has always been not enough government employees working the port to make it efficient, as was planned when they did that remodel two years ago,” Havel said.

“It’s a beautiful facility, but they don’t have enough people there.”

Havel said the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas “is always lobbying” with the U.S. government to bolster its staff at the port.

There are other needs at the port as well, said Lance Jungmeyer, FPAA president.

“We are challenged by the lack of enclosed, refrigerated secondary inspection space on the docks at Mariposa Port of Entry,” Jungmeyer said. “This is not an ideal situation for crossing fresh produce, but it is how all Southwest ports of entry were initially designed.”

FPAA believes it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide an inspection zone that is in full compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, Jungmeyer said.

“It is not clear whether an open-air inspection environment, which we have at all Southwest border crossings, meets the objective of being a safe place for inspecting produce,” he said.

“Certainly, the lack of refrigeration can harm product shelf life. We have been engaged with Department of Homeland Security to consider donating a cold inspection room to the port of entry, but this is a very expensive endeavor.”

The industry currently is trying to remedy that situation, said Matt Mandel, vice president of operations with Rio Rico, Ariz.-based distributor SunFed.

“We are currently in talks with Customs to add true refrigerated storage and inspection areas at the port of entry, where we currently only have a limited amount of temperature-controlled space. This will allow us to ship our products from farm to fork without breaking the cold chain and ensuring that our government facilities are compliant with all federally-mandated food safety regulations, as well,” Mandel said.

Meanwhile, the Unified Cargo Processing program is providing relief in crossing times, which now are almost always under an hour for routine shipments, Jungmeyer said.

“Some produce trucks get through Customs in as little as 30 minutes,” he said.

Challenges aside, Nogales continues to be “the port of choice” for produce shippers in western Mexico, said Fried DeSchouwer, president of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC.

“The good news is significant efficiencies have been built into the port, such as the CDP (Center for Domestic Preparedness) programs that somehow fast-lane imports — those kind of things, where we’ve actually seen expedited shipments come through,” he said.

“Once the seasons come into play, customers have done a good job of adding personnel to keep it going.”

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments have worked well to keep the Nogales port operating smoothly, DeSchouwer said.

“On the border today, that port has been updated, and they continue to put efforts into it, so I think it’s working fairly well and USDA and the Mexican counterparts to USDA are doing a very good job coming up with potential cooperation and programs, so it’s working,” he said.

Efficiency will become more crucial moving forward, said Jaime Chamberlain, president of Chamberlain Distributing Inc.

“The Mariposa Port of Entry has managed to increase growth every year since it was built,” he said.

“This growth comes from new commodities like papayas, berries, avocados, onions and many types of citrus. As Mexico’s agricultural sector matures, Nogales will continue to be the premier port of entry on the southern border for decades to come.”

SunFed’s Mandel agreed.

“We were blessed with the expansion/update of the Mariposa Port of Entry,” he said.

“From a volume standpoint, it is far better-equipped to service the produce industry as well as the other industries that utilize the port. That said, as the industry changes, we need to ensure that our infrastructure is meeting those ever-changing needs.”

There’s no reason to believe that won’t happen, said Chuck Thomas, president of Nogales-based Thomas Produce Sales Inc.

“It’s a helluva lot smoother than it used to be, when you’d have lines 5 or 6 miles long waiting (to get through the port),” Thomas said.

“Wait times are down maybe even 30 minutes to an hour if they get in early.”