SAN DIEGO — Protected agriculture is quickly becoming the standard method of growing tomatoes in Mexico.

“We don’t grow outside,” said Danny Uribe, sales manager for Pinos Produce Inc., which sources its product from Baja California, Mexico.

The company has been shipping shade house-grown roma and vine-ripe tomatoes for 10 years, he says. The firm’s cherry and grape tomatoes are grown in greenhouses.

Pinos started out with a cucumber shade house deal that was so successful that the company developed a five-year program to expand the shade house operation to its tomato deal.

Fresh Pac International, Oceanside, which also sources from Baja California, started growing in shade houses in a small way six years ago, said Brian Bernauer, sales director.

Today, the company grows 75% of its tomatoes indoors.

During the summer, San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce grows all of its tomatoes, which are grown in San Quintin and Vizcaino, in shade houses, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

In the fall, disease pressure drops in Vizcaino so the company grows some of its roma varieties outside.

“We are not enamored with shade technology for the sake of shade technology,” Munger said. “We want the highest-quality, most consistent product, and shade houses are a tool we use when necessary.”

There are several advantages to growing tomatoes in shade houses.

The quality of the tomatoes is outstanding, Uribe said, and shade houses minimize the fruit’s exposure to the elements.

“There are no issues with aphids, whitefly, heat or lack of heat, he said.

Product grown in shade houses requires less fertilizer and water, and yields increase about 30%, he said.

“We do a better job volumewise and conditionwise,” Uribe said. “Anyone who does anything open field needs to have their head examined.”

Bernauer felt the same way.

“You take out the weather, have less bugs and you need less water indoors,” he said, adding that yields improve, and wind and fog no longer are concerns.

Munger said controlled horticulture applications, like shade houses, will continue to dominate in Baja California because they result in better yields than field-grown methods and provide more consistent product, which takes pressure off the packinghouse.

However, he pointed out that production costs are significantly greater than open-field production methods.

Fortunately, the benefits of increased yields and high-quality product that shade houses produce compensate for the additional labor and packing costs they require, he said.

Not every company with a deal in Baja California is on the shade house bandwagon.

Expo Fresh LLC has grown some tomatoes in greenhouses and plans to plant 50 hectares in shade houses toward the end of the current season, said sales manager Bob Schachtel.

However, Schachtel said shade houses have drawbacks.

“I have a definite problem (with shade houses), especially if it rains,” he said. “It’s a real mess.”

Most of the firm’s tomatoes still are field grown.  Schachtel said the company may plant more under shade houses, but only “if they work.”