(Feb. 2) URUAPAN, Mexico — The march of progress in Mexico’s avocado industry can be charted through the orderly lines of a spreadsheet: The growth in acres, production and exports tell the story of an industry experiencing phenomenal success.

But just as telling are the orderly lines of newer avocado trees, spaced evenly throughout orchards in the growing regions of the state of Michoacan, that stand in stark contrast to the heavily forested orchards that are two to four decades older.

Cultivation practices targeting optimum production, along with newer varieties and younger trees that will ramp up volumes, foretell a future in which Mexico, the world’s largest supplier and consumer of avocados, will become more of a factor in exports.

CULTIVATING EXPORTS

While 80% of the country’s production is sold on the domestic market, shippers continue to develop Japan, Europe, France, Spain and other countries as export partners.

And since 1997, when Mexican avocados entered the U.S. for the first time in eight decades, the influence on the industry is evident: The number of certified orchards that can ship to the U.S. has increased from 61 in 1997-98 to 2,027 this season.

Certified acreage in Michoacan, the only state allowed to ship to the U.S., has grown from 3,700 acres to 53,300 acres during the same period.

Exports to the U.S. totaled 13.3 million pounds during the first year and almost 66 million pounds last year.

That’s a drop in the bucket to Mexico’s production of about 1.76 billion pounds last year, but Michoacan growers and shippers see their role growing as they cultivate relationships with U.S. shippers now in Michoacan.

Advertising and public relations programs also seek consumer interest in the U.S.

While the U.S. market has spurred growth in production, Michoacan was already on its way as an avocado powerhouse: from 1981-88, the state’s percentage of overall Mexican production increased from 32% to 60%, according to industry figures.

After the U.S. opened its border to the Mexican fruit in 1997, the industry formed the Michoachan Avocado Producer and Exporting Packer Association, or APEAM, which established advertising and public relations efforts through U.S. companies.

HOPING FOR ALL 50 STATES

Now APEAM is setting its sights on year-round access to all 50 states, a possibility raised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in June when it released a pest risk assessment.

A proposed rule hasn’t been released on the matter, but the assessment said the risk of pests from legally imported avocados is low.

Mexican avocados are allowed in 31 states from Oct. 15 to April 15.

Backed with more than 10 million pieces of pest-free fruit inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees at orchards, packing sheds and the border, APEAM officials are confident they’ll see their opportunities grow soon.

“Our arguments are based on science,” said Antonio Villasenor Baez, APEAM president, on a recent media tour of the avocado-growing region sponsored by the association and attended by representatives of several consumer and food industry publications and The Packer.

In the U.S., APEAM’s government relations director, Ron Campbell, lobbies for an open market on behalf of the association.

“The empirical data alone suggests that expansion is something that should have happened a long time ago,” Campbell said. “That being said, Mexico has also done extensive fruit fly research that has shown avocados are not a fruit fly host.”

California producers, wary of the implications of Mexican avocados entering its own production zones, have protested the possible consequences of the pest risk assessment.

Tom Bellamore, senior vice president and corporate counsel of the California Avocado Commission, Irvine, credits the Mexican industry for its seven-year history of pest-free shipping to the U.S.

But looking at the numbers gives way to concern, Bellamore said. Since the export program began, the certified acreage has increased exponentially but the number of USDA inspectors hasn’t seen a comparable increase, he said.

Also, as production expands, it nears noncommercial and backyard trees that haven’t been checked for pests.