Hurricane Jimena on Sept. 2 brought harsh winds, heavy rain and flooding to the central Baja California peninsula and portions of western Mexico, but growers said the storm had little effect on the greenhouse produce industry.

Buyers can expect good volumes of high quality produce this season.

Baja growers for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc. saw minimal damage from Jimena, said T.J. Bauer, director of sales for L&M’s Nogales, Ariz., office.

“The winds were not too heavy, but the fabric on some shade houses ripped a bit,” he said.

Good volumes and quality expected from Mexican greenhouses

Courtesy The Oppenheimer Group

Guadalajara, Mexico-based Divemex SA’s chief executive officer Luis de Saracho views orange bell peppers in his company’s greenhouse. Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group markets Divemex’s bell peppers in North America.

L&M’s main growing area near Culiacán, Sinaloa, was not affected.

Cesar Pacheco, a salesman in Los Angeles-based Giumarra Cos.’ Nogales office, said Jimena had no effect on the company’s greenhouse crops, which were on schedule as of Sept. 11.

Giumarra’s main Mexican greenhouse crops are slicing cucumbers, European cucumbers, mini cucumbers, and green, yellow, red and orange bell peppers.

The green bell peppers and mini cucumbers are new to its program.

Except for Jimena’s heavy rains, the 2009-10 season has been dry in central Mexico, but greenhouse growers are using efficient irrigation systems and the crops are doing well, said Cesar Campaña, president of the Culiacán-based Asociación Mexicana de Horticultura Protegida.

The association represents Mexican growers who use greenhouses, shade houses or macro tunnels, including an estimated 45% of the total acreage of greenhouses in the country, Campaña said.

Major protected agriculture crops in Mexico include tomatoes, colored bell peppers and cucumbers.

Tomatoes

Prices on tomatoes from Mexico and Southern California in late September were higher this year.

Two-layer flats of Southern California coast and Mexican vine-ripened tomatoes crossing through Otay Mesa, Calif., were priced at $6.95-7.95, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.

In late September 2008, vine-ripened tomatoes crossing through Otay Mesa were priced at $4.95-5.95 for two-layer cartons.

It’s especially difficult to predict pricing for Mexican greenhouse tomatoes this season, Bauer said, because the Mexican government recently provided financing to support new greenhouse growers.

Bauer said the industry’s not sure how many new hectares of tomatoes have been planted, what quality and volumes might be produced, and whether new production will affect the U.S. market.

It seems certain, though, that the sagging U.S. economy will affect Mexican greenhouse tomato prices.

Buyers are trying to write contracts with L&M for lower prices than they have in the past, Bauer said.

On the other hand, he said, if consumers continue trying to save money by eating at home more often, demand might increase for tomatoes at the supermarket and prices could rise.

“The markets are hard to peg,” Bauer said. “They’re also weather-dependent, and we have to take Florida into account in terms of production.”

San Antonio-based Desert Glory Ltd. specializes in year-round greenhouse production of small tomatoes, which it markets under its NatureSweet label.

The line includes NatureSweet D’Vines, NatureSweet vine-ripened cherry tomatoes and NatureSweet Cherubs.

The company plans to test market a new product, NatureSweet Sunbursts, in early 2010, said Bryant Ambelang, president and chief executive officer.

Desert Glory’s tomatoes are grown in five Mexican greenhouse facilities that are within 2½ hours of Guadalajara, Ambelang said.

It plans to expand its facility in Tepic, Nayarit, to 50 hectares (about 124 acres) in January.

Ultimately, the company plans to build 100 hectares (about 247 acres) in Tepic in stages.

Desert Glory claims 80% of U.S. market share in the cherry tomato category, Ambelang said, and overall sales growth has averaged 15% to 20% a year.

The company plans to expand farther into the eastern U.S.

It ships NatureSweet Cherubs as far east as Chicago, but it plans to launch an aggressive campaign in Ohio this fall.

“The big, big small tomato markets like New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia — we’re getting ready to go into them,” Ambelang said. “Not by the end of the year … (first) we have to see how much demand is created by the product.”

The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, markets Mexican greenhouse tomatoes-on-the-vine in 11-pound boxes.

The tomatoes, which are in season from mid-October through late June, are grown in San Luis Potosí.

Kevin Batt, Oppenheimer’s greenhouse category manager, said the growing area is about eight hours from the McAllen, Texas, border crossing.

“This proximity represents a good opportunity for quality Mexican greenhouse TOVs for our customers in the Eastern U.S. who draw through McAllen,” he said.

The main greenhouse tomato production window for L&M is from January through May.
Planting begins in about late September.

Bauer said he expects to see more roma tomato production and less round tomato volume in Mexican greenhouses this season.

L&M’s greenhouse tomato acreage is up from last year, although Bauer declined to say how many acres the company’s growers have.

He said he expects L&M to ship a total of 4 million boxes of greenhouse produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers, from Mexico this season.

Mexican tomatoes represent 85% of U.S. fresh tomato imports, the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service reported, and Mexico is the dominant source of U.S. tomato imports during fall, winter and spring.

Bell peppers

The USDA reported that 15-pound cartons of large or extra large red bell peppers from the South District in California were priced at $10.10-10.95 in late September.

A year earlier, larger 25-pound cartons of large or extra-large red bell peppers from the South District were priced at $10.10-12.10.

Oppenheimer’s largest volume Mexican greenhouse crop is red, orange and yellow peppers from its Guadalajara-based grower Divemex SA, Batt said.

Its peppers are grown year-round in Etzatlán, and from mid-December to late June in Culiacán.

San Luis Potosí-based grower Horticola Cimarron SA produces greenhouse peppers from mid-October to mid-June for Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer packs colored bell peppers in various packages, including value-added three-count, four-count, six-count and 2-pound bags of mixed colors, and in bulk packs of 11 or 25 pounds.

Giumarra’s red, yellow and orange bell peppers grow in Guaymas in northern Mexico.

Pacheco said the company plans to produce the same volume of peppers it produced last year in the region.

L&M is rebuilding its colored bell pepper deal after insect infestations destroyed nearly 100 hectares (about 247 acres) in Baja last year, Bauer said.

The acreage has been replanted with colored bell peppers, green bell peppers and cucumbers.

Colored bell pepper production this season should remain about even with last year’s, but Bauer said he did not have an estimate of expected shipping volume.

Cucumbers

L&M customers are more frequently demanding top quality cucumbers, and protected agriculture fills that demand because it produces bigger volumes of high-quality cucumbers, Bauer said.

“We’d only get 25% super select in the open field, but we get 80% super select in a shade house,” Bauer said.

“There is a huge price difference in super versus plain.”

The USDA reported that 1 1/9-bushel cartons of Mexico-grown medium size cucumbers crossing through Otay Mesa in late September were at $28.95-30.95.

“(Cucumber) pricing has been very unpredictable the past couple years,” Bauer said.
“Maybe part of that has to do with the fact that large volumes of cucumbers have gone contracted.”

L&M growers should begin harvesting cucumbers near Hermosillo, Sonora, by late September, Bauer said. Peak volumes are typically harvested from early October through early July.

Some of L&M’s cucumbers are grown on the east coast of Mexico and transported by boat into Florida. Others grow in Sinaloa, Baja and Sonora.

Oppenheimer features long seedless cucumbers from Divemex in its line of Mexican greenhouse produce, Batt said.

They are in season from late October through mid-May.

Oppenheimer expects to have large promotable volumes from the second week of November through late December.

Industry-preferred packages of 12- and 16-count cartons are used for the company’s long seedless cucumbers.

Two- and three-count packages also are available.

Giumarra’s cucumber harvest period runs from Oct. 25 to May 1, Pacheco said.

The company’s greenhouse cucumbers are grown in Guaymas, Sonora, and in Culiacán.
Bauer said he estimates that L&M’s cucumber production will be higher than last year, with about 1 million boxes of cucumbers shipping from Mexico this season.