Despite the sluggish economy, most shippers of Mexican greenhouse produce say they remain optimistic about their industry.

“We still feel bullish on the program we have,” said Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.

“We have a good following.”

There are highs and lows to the market every season, Aiton said.

“I don’t think it’s something you could peg specifically on the economy.”

The company grows colored bell peppers in Mexico and the U.S.

Great taste and a consumer preference for small, flavorful tomatoes has helped San Antonio-based NatureSweet Ltd. continue to grow despite the economic downturn, said Kathryn Ault, marketing director.

NatureSweet products may not be the cheapest ones in the tomato department, but that doesn’t seem to scare off shoppers.

“A great-tasting tomato at our prices is probably better than a bland, cheaper alternative,” Ault said.

“Consumers are relying on our brand to deliver the promise of consistency.”

Shoppers also consider food safety, since the tomatoes are sold in individually wrapped packages, she said.

“There was a substantial downturn in the economy three years ago that caused us to have lower markets,” said Jim Cathey, general manager for Del Campo Supreme Inc., Nogales, Ariz.

“Everything collapsed,” he said, forcing retailers to make a tough choice.

“They chose to promote and lower their retails to keep going,” he said.

That was followed by two years during which Mother Nature hit the industry with freezes in Florida and Mexico, and that led to much higher markets, despite the still-depressed economy.

Last year brought a perfect storm, Cathey said, with plenty of volume from Florida and Mexico.

Retailers generally did little advertising or promoting, and that led to some depressed markets.

“We all had kind of a tough season,” Cathey said.

People are cutting back, said Fried De Schouwer, president of Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC, Vero Beach, Fla.

“There is definitely a downgrade of products.”

Consumers who used to buy cocktail tomatoes now buy tomatoes on the vine. Those who bought tomatoes on the vine are picking up round tomatoes. Round tomato buyers have switched to romas, and roma consumers are settling for a can of tomato sauce, he said.

“There’s no doubt about it. It’s clear that people are buying value,” De Schouwer said.

DeSchouwer isn’t optimistic about the overall economy. He hasn’t seen any improvement so far, and doesn’t see a recovery in the future.

Bebo Distributing Inc., Pharr, Texas, always is competing with open-field production for its eggplant, colored bell pepper and cucumber business, said owner Jaime Garza.

Open field producers likely will feel the effect of the sour economy more than greenhouse growers because of the difference in quality, he said.

“We’ve been moving product,” he said, though he said that he would like to see stronger markets.

Mexico also is affected by the economic downturn.

“On the growing side, the (economic) problems are not too much different from what we have in the U.S.,” Aiton said.

“Generally speaking, unemployment down there is still high, and there’s a lot of room for improvement as far as spending ability of the Mexican people is concerned,” he said.

Cathey thinks the U.S. felt the effects of the recession more than some other countries.

“I don’t think the economic downturn the U.S. had was felt nearly as hard in Canada and Mexico,” he said.

DeSchouwer said he thinks the economy is growing in Mexico, as is local consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Interest in greenhouse products is on the rise south of the border, he said.

Meanwhile, Mexican growers are trying to lower costs by switching to more lucrative crops like bell peppers and extending their seasons to sell more product, he said.