Although it’s receiving some tough competition nowadays from border ports in Texas, Arizona’s port of entry in Nogales has held nearly a century-old lock on being the major arrival point for a variety of fresh produce from Mexico into the U.S.
According to a study by the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Economic Development Corporation, the impact of the imported fresh produce industry is huge, with Nogales serving as the main gateway to North American markets for Sinaloa- and Sonora-grown tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers and much of its winter-harvested, vegetables.
More than 500 growers, harvesters, packers and distributors of these kinds of products met last month for the 50th annual conference of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas headquartered in Nogales.
“The get-together combines education, networking and fun and represents the kickoff of a new growing season, the beginning of the harvest where discussions center on planning for the season and sharing ideas,” said FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer.
Speaking on behalf of the governor, Southern Arizona director Juan Ciscomani reminded the group of the economic importance of their industry. FPAA represents 39 percent of all imported fruits and vegetables consumed in North America, and Nogales is the largest port of entry for Mexican-grown product. Ciscomani said that “nearly five billion pounds of healthy edibles come through the port each year via 1,200 truckloads daily.”
Between holas (hellos) and handshakes, the discussions ranged from further streamlining commercial border crossings to Unified Cargo Processing, a pilot program to scan 100 percent of commercial cargo; a revamp of the Trusted Trader Program; a lack of agricultural laborers; food safety issues; social responsibilities; and a revised (but not yet ratified) NAFTA agreement.
“It was time for an update to the NAFTA we knew for 25 years,” Jungmeyer said. “There are a lot of good things in the new proposal which should see more cooperation between authorities in all three countries on issues like inspections and audits. Beforehand, the agriculture secretaries said they wanted to ‘do no harm’ to agriculture, and I’d say, by and large, that happened. If it receives final approval and gets signed with no major changes to the way it’s written now, we’re OK with it.”
Nogales fruit and vegetable distributor Jaime Chamberlain concurred, and reminded fellow industry members that politics might further impact the situation. He said there is still “uncertainty in the U.S. administration and the incoming Mexican administration” over the new trade agreement, although he does foresee cooperation in the industry with the new leader in Mexico.
“Safe to say, whether the administration is ours or Mexico’s, unpredictability is always a factor,” Chamberlain said. “But we’ve been importing fruits and vegetables here for over a century, so whatever challenges come our way, we’ll deal with them.”
In reflecting on the year about to end, Jungmeyer noted: “2018 will end up as a good one despite all the political and climate uncertainties. Every crop has its cycle of ups and downs and it’s rare we have a good season for everything across the board, but there is a continuing strong demand for the variety of Mexican produce.”
Attesting to that was the public unveiling of a first-of-its-kind year-long University of Arizona Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics study on agribusiness values pertaining to Mexican fresh tomatoes headed for U.S. and Canadian consumers. Researchers calculated that market alone represented $4.8 billion in sales, and supported nearly 33,000 full- and part-time jobs.
“Even though grown elsewhere, imported fresh produce such as tomatoes, support economic activity, produce jobs and result in income to the United States,” reported researcher Dari Duval, who went on to note that domestic per capita fresh tomato demand has risen by 32 percent over the last 25 years. That increase means a per person consumption rate of 17 pounds of tomatoes per year with an average of 9.4 million pounds arriving daily from Mexico into the U.S.
VisitTucson Executive Vice President and conference attendee Felipe Garcia said the successes of the border produce industry went far beyond an industry of mere comestibles.
“Think not only of the produce coming across the border, but the buyers and sellers who come to the area to conduct that trade, the indirect benefits we get from produce industry business travelers,” he said. “It all ties together, as Tucson has been recognized as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy—and more recently named a member of the Delice Network where food successes are used as economic developers.”
Lee Allen is a Tucson Local Media freelance reporter.