NOGALES, Ariz. — Protected agriculture — in the form of shade houses, hothouses and greenhouses — continues to expand in Mexico, enabling growers to reap higher yields and provide product they say is superior to field-grown vegetables.

Last year, growers in Mexico produced more tomatoes under protected agriculture than they did in open fields, said Jesse Driskill, director of operations for Meyer LLC.

Ten years ago, the growing practice accounted for only 10% of the market, he said. Today, that figure is more than 50%.

“That trend is only going to continue,” he added.

Protected agriculture is growing faster in Mexico than any other country, said Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer for Ciruli Bros. LLC.

This year, the company will grow 100% of its regular tomatoes in shade houses, along with 70% of its romas.

The firm even has started growing some specialty eggplant in shade houses, and Ciruli said he’s on the lookout for seed varieties that will enable the company to grow regular eggplant under cover.

Researchers also are developing new seed types for colored bell peppers and cucumbers, but for now, green bell peppers, regular eggplant and green beans still are grown in open fields.

Danny Mandel, a principal and chief executive officer at SunFed, is another big believer in protected agriculture.

“It’s what stands between the produce and the natural elements that potentially damage product, and it allows you have much higher quality,” he said.

“It’s definitely a trend because it allows us to offer customers a higher level of quality and a more uniform product for a longer period of time.”

It also enables growers to use fewer inputs, including pesticides, fertilizers and water.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said. “And it’s sustainable.”

The initial cost of a shade house is very expensive, Ciruli said, “but the long term cost is actually beneficial.”

With the current gloomy economic state, however, some growers have cut back on their use of shade houses, said George Gotsis, president of Omega Produce Co. Inc.

Covered acreage continues to increase, but growth has slowed, he said.

Driskill thinks the greenhouse deal may be overbuilt.

“It’s kind of struggling and reaching for some kind of balance between costs, yields and production efficiencies and between open field and shade house production,” he said.

There can be a disadvantage to shade house growing when storms come along, bringing rain and high winds with them.

“Under some really severe rainstorms, we’ve seen those things buckle with the force of the wind and the pressure of the water coming down on them,” Ciruli said.

Storm solutions

Growers have improved their drainage systems to get water off the roofs quicker over the past few years.

Another solution is to roll up or cut the sides of the shade house material so that wind can blow through the houses, said Jaime Chamberlain, president of J-C Distributing, the sales arm of Chamberlain Distributing Inc.

But those alternatives are expensive.

He has seen shade houses end up “looking like Tinker Toys” after a storm, he said.

Open fields can be replanted fairly quickly, Gotsis said, but it can take a long time just to remove damaged product and materials from a shade house blown down by winds.