Mexico, already the world’s third-largest exporter of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries, is searching for ways to get U.S. consumers to throw more fresh blueberries into the pancake batter and heap more raspberries onto their fruit salads.
As long as U.S. and other foreign consumers wolf down berries, Mexican proponents of the industry say, the surge will continue. And that’s more than just an agricultural oddity in a land better-known for fields of blue-green agave and patches of cactus. The growth of the berry industry has had major consequences on regions long afflicted by high unemployment and drug-related violence.
The industry, which didn’t exist less than two decades ago, employs more than 100,000 people and reaps nearly $1 billion a year. And it’s still emerging from its adolescence.
“We’re starting some huge growth,” said Javier Trujillo Arriaga, Mexico’s senior federal plant health director. “It’s been spectacular, absolutely spectacular.”
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“It’s likely the industry will employ 200,000 people in five years,” added Mario Steta Gándara, former head of the National Association of Berry Exporters, a trade association that began only five years ago.
Berry cultivation isn’t the province only of huge industrial farms. Similar to coffee farms, berry operations vary in size.
“You can have the 500-acre or 600-acre guy, but you also have people making a decent living on 5 acres,” said Steta, who’s general manager of Mexico operations for Driscoll’s Berries, a fruit giant based in Watsonville, Calif., with more than a century in the berry business.
The story of Mexico’s berry industry begins in distant lands – California and Chile – where fruit farmers encountered a number of difficulties ranging from water shortages to high shipping costs and inadequate access to migrant workers. So growers looked elsewhere.
“I worked in raspberries for 10 years in Chile,” said Sergio Vargas, a Chilean who’s a partner in Berries Paradise, an exporter with a logo that describes the concern’s products as “a piece of heaven.”
He and his Mexican partner have 1,500 acres of blueberries and raspberries under cultivation in neat rows under open-sided plastic covers. The fields are in the southern highlands of Jalisco state along the Pacific coast.
“We started at zero in 2008,” Vargas said. “It’s cost a lot to learn how to grow blueberries here. . . . We’ve had a sharp learning curve.”
They’ve settled on a variety of blueberry known as Biloxi, a name taken from the city in Mississippi, which is adapted to the warmer temperatures and milder winters of Mexico.
Unlike in the United States, the blueberry bushes don’t drop their leaves here, and the growing season is from November to May, or longer. Harvests are smaller per acre but “it’s still a good business,” Vargas said.
Most of the berry farms are 4,000 to 5,200 feet above sea level, an elevation that blunts the fierce heat that beats down along the coast. While strawberries are grown widely in Mexico, other berries are largely limited to Jalisco, Michoacan and Colima states, all of which border the Pacific, since that’s where the necessary refrigerated supply chain is centered.
The regions traditionally had been home to much different kinds of plants. When foreign growers came to the areas of Jalisco where berries now flourish, they found sugarcane. In neighboring Michoacan, berries took over from avocado plantations.
Trujillo, the government crop official, said major sugarcane growers would hire only 50 people to tend 25,000 acres. That same acreage for berries, he said, employs 2,000 people to tend the bushes and harvest the fruit by hand.
Mexico’s largest berry producer is Driscoll’s, the California concern. Its chief executive, Miles Reiter, a third-generation berry man, came to Mexico around 1995.
“A worker . . . in California invited Miles to a wedding in Jalisco in the middle of winter,” Steta said. “He came, he saw the environment . . . and he wondered if it was not the right environment for berries.”
Reiter quickly determined that bushes and vines would sprout from the soil, but he kept his plan low-key for a number of years, quietly doing trials in Mexico in the late 1990s. Then conditions in California pushed him to action. An anti-immigrant mood made it harder to get field labor there to harvest his berries.
“California’s challenges are really providing an opportunity for Mexico. Labor and immigration are really big issues. You do not have the labor to harvest these crops in California,” Steta said.
The berry industry’s growth has been so rapid that hurdles have arisen. At some times of the year, the country lacks refrigerated trucks to move berries, which have a shelf life of about 45 days. Better laws are needed to protect proprietary varieties. And capital costs are high. Rather than coming from seeds, the vines and bushes must be propagated from roots and stems, usually brought from the U.S. and elsewhere.
Two dozen companies now belong to the berry exporters’ association, and those that have mastered the supply chain note proudly how quickly their berries get plucked from the vine or bush, sent to cooling chambers, then on to refrigerated trucks.
“These trucks,” said Daniel Partida Salazar, as he stood on a shipping dock for Sunbelle, another grower, “go directly to the United States. When the doors shut here, they don’t open again until Chicago.”
When Mexico-grown berries show up on U.S. supermarket shelves, few consumers notice the provenance.
“The same brands that U.S. consumers are used to seeing on supermarket shelves – like Driscoll’s, like Naturipe, like Dole – are sourcing (their berries) in Mexico now,” said Mario Andrade Cárdenas, a grower from Michoacan state who’s the head of the berry exporters’ association.
“Today, Mexico is the principal source of berries for the United States outside of U.S. production,” he said.
But growers here seek to diversify. While 80 to 90 percent of exports head north, growers also air-ship to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and East Asia.
“The consumption of berries just keeps growing. People are eating them for all their anti-oxidant properties, their high fiber and their beneficial effects,” said Casimiro Dávila, purchasing chief for Hortifrut, a Chilean company with major investments in Mexico.
Dávila said Mexico had cut sharply into Chile’s global berry-market share.
“Mexico just killed Chile in production of blackberries and raspberries,” he said, “because the cost of air shipment was so high.”
Mexico now produces 30 percent of the world’s blackberries.
Berry growers here have met defeat in only one area: convincing Mexicans themselves to eat more berries. Mexicans eat less than a tenth of what’s eaten in the United States, where per capita consumption of fresh berries tops five pounds a year.