Right before the COVID-19 virus pandemic swept in and thwarted travel everywhere, I was fortunate to spend a few days in Mexico in early March. Specifically, I was in Jalisco state, where fruit and vegetable production – especially berries -- has risen to new heights.
I was there to work with the new Mexican Guild of Agricultural Journalists, to help its 20 members get its operation off the ground and further develop knowledge mobilization capacity. Agriculture is becoming increasingly important to the Mexican economy. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was expected to be the only significant growth sector in 2020. Growers are looking for as much knowledge as they can get to help with increasing production, and agricultural journalists are skilled at, among other things, conveying and explaining technical information.
Over the past 25 years, Mexico has become a significant winter supplier to Canada and the U.S. and to a lesser extent Europe and Asia, of quality fruit and vegetables. It’s common here to see Product of Mexico origin stickers on berry clamshell containers and on other fruit, especially avocados. Well-developed transportation corridors from Mexico through to Texas then on to Canada move refrigerated produce from field to table in as little as two days.
Mexico’s success mirrors the overall growth of the greenhouse sector across North America, driven by health-conscious consumers’ pursuit of affordable, tasty, fresh food. Here at home, Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable sector is expanding rapidly at an annual rate of four to five per cent, with greenhouses covering almost 3,200 acres across the province.
Greenhouse production in Jalisco, with its natural advantages such as favourable winter temperatures, rainfall and groundwater, is huge. Raspberry canes started as seedlings in May can grow up to seven feet tall by the following March. Plastic-covered plots now cover 116,000 acres there, with the industry reporting an average growth of 16.5 per cent per year for the past six years.
Prices have not kept pace, but the industry has an answer for that: technology and innovation.
“We’ve seen product prices decrease, but production rise,” says Aldo Mares, the chair of the executive board of the Mexican Export Berry Association. “That’s why we need research, innovation and high-end technology, so production increases can offset price drops.”
Mexico’s berry industry is highly labour-intensive and now employs 370,000 workers in production and processing. About 64,000 of them work in the state of Jalisco. A competitive situation has arisen for labour, and is credited with helping raise the bar for workers’ rights and providing in-country employment for migrant workers from other states with high employment.
The greenhouse sector hires many women, especially as harvesters. In Mexican culture, they are considered to have a gentler touch with tender fruit. This is giving them new opportunities to join the movement to kick back at the second-class treatment women have historically received in Mexican society and generate a decent income and respect as wage earners.
Their plight is bolstered by farmers such as Mares, part owner with his brother and another investor in Green Gold Farms in Jalisco state. They normally hire 1,000 workers, but this year they’ll employ 1,600, to meet demand.
Half of their workers are recruited from states other than Jalisco; some from as far as a 24-hour bus ride away. When new workers arrive, they’re given finances to help get established until they begin earning money (they start harvesting after one week of safety and quality training). They’re also given housing that complies with international standards for square feet per person.
“They work hard and they appreciate the job,” says Mares.
The berry association comprises 30 companies that represent 90 per cent of the berries grown in Mexico. About 85 per cent of the members are certified through Global GAP, with the goal of getting that number to 100 per cent by the end of the 2020-2021 growing season. Mares believes such high standards are necessary to comply with importers’ demands -- not to mention those of Driscoll’s, his sole client.
Although the threat of COVID-19 was still in its infancy when I visited, Bloom Farms was already taking new precautions to enhance its safety protocols – visitor reduction, hand sanitizing for all harvesters and face masks. Mares recognizes the importance of such measures to the company’s North American trading partners, and says he and other fruit producers are anxious to get the USMCA trade deal off on the right foot...which Canada ratified just as I was leaving.
“The trade deal provides a lot of certainty to the industry, and benefits,” says Mares. “We need trade and private investment to be competitive.”