It doesn't happen every day - not even every week - but once every couple of weeks there is a U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service attache report that makes me sit up and take notice.

The latest such report come the Mexico City FAS post, and is called Greenhouse and Shade House Production to Continue Increasing

Mexico's embrace of greenhouse/shadehouse technology has been remarkable in its progress, and the report helps document and confirm the trend. This report provides a good context to the state of "protected agriculture" in Mexico, though I would have like a little more info on the marketing season for assorted shadehouse crops.

You will want to check out the report in full (plus tables and pics), but here are some excerpts.

From the report:

During the week of April 13, 2010, FAS/Mexico visited protected agricultural facilities in the states of Jalisco and Sinaloa. Production under these houses has transformed Mexican agriculture and continues to adapt unique technologies depending on weather conditions and economic factors.

 Protected agricultural production uses installations of low to medium technology and ranges from hard plastic to anti-aphid netting (depending on the definition of greenhouse or shade house). A few use hydroponic systems, but most use drip irrigation without heating systems or CO2.

Half of the area devoted to protected agriculture uses shade houses since this type of technology can adapt to the weather more efficiently. Most of the growers agreed that due to the latitude of Mexico and warmer climates in producing areas, shade houses adapt better (especially considering shade houses are typically cheaper).

 According to producers, weather conditions dictate what kind of technology is needed to guarantee optimal conditions of growth and quality production while following food safety production regulations and therefore, more producers are moving to shade houses. Whether through greenhouses or shade houses, production under protected agriculture continues to grow rapidly.

 The percentage of area planted using protected agriculture has increased nearly 40 percent over the past three years. The United States is the primary market for products grown under protected agriculture, but growers continue to export larger quantities each year to other markets. Source: The Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture (AMHPAC)

According to private sources, the area devoted to protected agricultural production continues to increase significantly. Due to the advantages of “protected agriculture” over open field production, producers started using greenhouses/shade houses nearly 10 years ago.

This type of production grew from about 750 hectares in 1999 to approximately 15,000 hectares in 2010.

Protection technology differs depending on the crop and the geographical region. Technology also differs between small producer associations (12 - 13 associates working with 5-12 hectares) and large owners with extensive experience in the horticultural business, who own more than 15 hectares of production. Typically, most large business owners use better technology compared to smaller producers, but this also depends on the climatic conditions throughout the region.

Specifically, greenhouse technology in Mexico ranges from low to medium and from medium to high technology. Since climatic conditions dictate what kind of technology is needed, most producers use shade houses or basic plastic greenhouses.

 Medium to higher technology can be found in northern states like Sinaloa, Baja California and Sonora or in the central states like Queretaro and the state of Mexico. The central states have the advantage of producing year-round, whereas northern states produce mainly during the winter season.

According to private sources, over 51 percent of the producers using protection agriculture prefer shade houses over greenhouses. The majority of the infrastructures have drip irrigation systems, insect/anti-aphid protection, and systems to control light and air. Other higher technology installations such as glass structures with heating, illumination systems and CO2 usage are seldom found.

 While there is a slight margin of shade house use compared to greenhouse use, shade houses are becoming more popular due to lower costs and the use of equivalent technology.

 Sources indicated that there is almost no need for glass houses or warming systems since the ambient temperature in most producing regions is sufficient. The very first producers experimented with high glass greenhouse technology, only to find out that it was too expensive and provided little additional production. Most producers switched to shade house technology due to lower costs and equal production, but there remain a few producers who have benefitted from high glass technology.

Producers indicated that the goal of using protected agriculture is to guarantee optimal growth while assuring importers of a safe quality product. Protected agriculture technology is being adapted and brought in from different countries, depending on the technological and financial packages available. The main countries include Israel, France, the Netherlands and the United States.

However, the use of protected agriculture has not stopped growers from planting in open fields. Some growers combine the use of both technologies to their advantage. In fact, some growers stated that the new Roma tomato seed varieties planted in open fields yield excellent quality tomatoes, almost as if grown in shade houses. One advantage is that open field tomatoes arrive to the market first.

Afterwards, producers can use protected agriculture to control temperature and production allowing the producer to extend the growing season. Industry Standards AMPHAC indicated that many protected agricultural producers support “social responsibility” (i.e., help the development of the area by hiring in nearby communities) and continue to improve the quality of life for employees while training them to keep high production standards.

Many of these producers have built dining areas for workers and continue to promote safer working environments. Many producers are now treating water according to food safety regulations in order to protect the environment. Packing facilities also follow food safety regulations as well as environmental regulations.

 Many producers are pushing for full compliance from all producers to comply with the minimum requirements and standards by 2012.

Producers indicated that most of the horticultural products exported to the U.S. market go through the Nogales, Arizona port of entry.

 In order to reach other markets quicker and to facilitate transportation, producers are now moving more volume through southern Texas. Some sources indicated they expect a 30 percent increase in shipments through the Laredo and McAllen ports of entry over the next five years.

Sinaloa has the highest concentration of protected agriculture, about 30 percent, in the country, followed by the states of Baja California Norte and Sonora.

From a total of 27,670 hectares in Sinaloa devoted to tomato, bell pepper, cucumber and eggplant, about 10 percent is grown under different types of protected agriculture.