Protected agriculture in Mexico is growing at an annual rate of about 13%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Greenhouse and shade house operations are concentrated in the states of Sinaloa, Baja California and Jalisco, FAS says.

Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture — SAGARPA — reports about 50,000 acres are under protected agriculture, with about 30,000 acres of greenhouses and 20,000 acres of shade houses and macro-tunnels.

The main horticultural products produced under this technology are tomatoes (70%), bell peppers (16%) and cucumbers (10%), the FAS says.

“The only crop we grow outside now is grape tomatoes,” said Jim Cathey, general manager at Del Campo Supreme Inc., Nogales, Ariz.

The company grows 100 acres of grape tomatoes in open fields, but everything else — roma, beefsteak and specialty tomatoes, tomatoes-on-the-vine and sweet, elongated red bell peppers — are grown in shade houses or greenhouses, Cathey said.

“The reason you spend the money for protected agriculture is better yields of exportable product,” said Chris Ciruli, a partner in Ciruli Bros. LLC, Rio Rico, Ariz.

The company saw a 50% increase in eggplant yields with product grown in protected agriculture, he said.

About 90% of the protected cucumber crop is exportable compared with 50% of the field-grown crop.

All of the product that Nogales, Ariz.-based Apache Produce handles is grown in greenhouses, said general manager Alberto Maldonado.

The company markets tomatoes, roma tomatoes, colored bell peppers and English cucumbers.

Improved yields

Apache Produce has been using plastic greenhouses for about 10 years, gradually increasing its volume.

The company gets the same yields or more with 300 hectares of protected agriculture as it does with 1,500 to 2,000 hectares in open fields, he said.

San Antonio-based NatureSweet Ltd. grows 1,200 acres of tomatoes in five facilities in three states in Mexico, said Kathryn Ault, marketing director.

Most of the tomatoes are grown hydroponically in a controlled environment to ensure quality and food safety, she said.

“It’s all about the control and the quality,” she said.

The popularity of protected agriculture has grown much more dramatically in Mexico than in the U.S. , said Mike Aiton, marketing director for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.

It’s been spurred by the fact that a protective environment is required to shield crops from diseases, pests and bugs, which are more of a problem in Mexico than in the U.S., he said.

Prime Time International has been selling round and grape tomatoes grown in greenhouses and shade houses in Baja California and imported through Otay Mesa in Southern California, he said. This year, the company will add roma tomatoes.

Most of the company’s red, yellow and orange blocky bell peppers also are grown under protected agriculture.

The firm also grows in greenhouses in the U.S.

Learning curve and costs

Growing under protected agriculture comes with some challenges.

There is a learning curve involved in the process, and growers have to develop systems that work best for them, Maldonado said.

Growers for Apache Produce “went through ups and downs,” he said, but now they have good control over their growing processes.

Last year during a freeze, he said, “the greenhouses came out in very good shape.”

The initial investment in protected agriculture can be significant.

“Up-front costs are substantial,” Aiton said.

Growers must build structures that will last and help them achieve higher yields to make the program pencil out, he said.

Fortunately, protected agriculture usually attracts a premium price, Aiton said.

More than 90% of Del Campo Supreme’s acreage is protected agriculture, Cathey said.

The company labels field-grown and shade house-grown product differently from greenhouse product, Cathey said.

Del Campo Supreme grows roma tomatoes and red bell peppers in soil in shade houses.

“Because they’re not grown hydroponically, we refer to them as field grown, and we pack them in our Classic label, which is all of our field-grown product,” Cathey said.

“We do not view that product as being greenhouse grown because it’s being grown in the soil, but it’s being grown in a controlled environment,” he said.

The firm’s round, beefsteak, cluster, specialty and some grape tomatoes are grown hydroponically.

“Because we grow them hydroponically in a controlled environment, they are in our Reserve brand, and we refer to them as our greenhouse-grown product.”