Amid reports some Mexican tomatoes destined for U.S. markets are being returned to shippers because of glutted markets, Nogales, Ariz.-based grower-shippers who have found homes for all of their Mexican-grown fruit are counting themselves lucky.
In Florida, meanwhile, the tomato industry continues to lay the blame for sagging markets on overproduction south of the border.
Media reports in late January quoting officials from the Commission for Research and Protection of Sinaloa Vegetables (CAADES) and other Mexican organizations said that tomatoes were at risk of being rejected and in some cases destroyed because there was no market for them in the U.S.
CAADES’ Mario Robles, the official quoted in an El Sol de Sinaloa newspaper story, did not return requests for comment.
Jaime Chamberlain, chairman of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and president of Nogales-based J-C Distributing, Inc., had not heard reports of Mexican tomatoes getting rejected at the border.
“Shippers are only packing what they’re able to sell,” Chamberlain said. “The quality is outstanding, some of the best we’ve had in a couple of years.”
Chamberlain also said it was strange that Florida growers and officials were blaming the low prices on Mexico.
“They have a lot more than we have,” he said, adding that Florida volumes have been higher than Mexican volumes for weeks.
Florida did ship more field-grown round tomatoes in the week ending Jan. 28, but when Mexican vine-ripe greenhouse-grown tomatoes were added, Mexico shipped more overall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Mexico also shipped far more roma tomatoes, more cherry tomatoes and about the same number of grape tomatoes as Florida the week ending Jan. 28.
Lance Jungmeyer, president of the FPAA, said he also had not heard reports of rejections. He did say Mexican shippers were choosing very carefully what fruit to send to the border.
“I’ve heard that they’re trying to limit shipments to only the highest quality at this point in order to mitigate the oversupply,” Jungmeyer said.
Chris Ciruli, partner and chief operating officer for Nogales-based Ciruli Bros. LLC, said because of the large volumes, only No. 1-quality tomatoes are making it over the border.
And that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
“It’s the peak of the deal, and at the moment it’s very low price-wise,” Ciruli said Jan. 31. “Supplies are very high, and I don’t see it changing through March.”
On Jan. 31, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $4.99-5.25 for two-layer cartons of 4x4 and 5x5 field and greenhouse-grown vine-ripe tomatoes from Mexico, down from $6.95-7.95 last year at the same time.
Under a U.S./Mexico suspension agreement, the amount below which tomatoes cannot be sold is about 21 cents per pound. That translates into $5.25 for a 25-pound box of loose mature greens.
Volumes of both field-grown and greenhouse-grown tomatoes from Mexico fell off between mid- and late January, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
About 14.8 million pounds of field-grown round tomatoes shipped in the week ending Jan. 28, down from 18.7 million pounds the previous week. About 22.6 million pounds of greenhouse tomatoes shipped in the week ending Jan. 28, down from 26.9 million pounds.
Ciruli Bros.’ growing partner in Mexico is also a tomato processor, providing it with an outlet for lower-grade product that won’t get exported to the U.S., Ciruli said.
Some Mexican growers also are relying more on domestic markets to take excess fruit.
Florida tomato growers and officials have criticized Mexico for overproducing, but Ciruli pointed out that last season, because of weather issues, there weren’t enough Mexican tomatoes to meet demand.
And even as recently as the first 10 days of January, he said, the tomato market was short.
“Is that saying they’re not producing enough?” he said, referring to early January supplies. “It’s always a challenge, trying to guess what the weather’s going to be.”
Mexican tomato volumes should peak through mid-March on all varieties, said Jerry Wagner, president of Nogales-based Farmers Best International LLC.
“The weather’s perfect, the quality’s excellent, and it’s an excellent time for promotions,” he said. “We’ve been grateful for retailers’ support.”
Wagner said Farmers Best’s grower partners also has not had product rejected and has not had to destroy tomatoes because of overproduction, and he had not heard of other shippers having to do so.
“We’re very fortunate that we’ve had a couple of very good years, which has allowed us to increase our distribution,” he said. “We’re getting through this, and we feel very fortunate.”
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, continued to criticize the Mexican industry for overproducing.
“The tremendous volume coming out of Mexico has overwhelmed the entire marketplace,” Brown said Jan. 31. “Product is arriving with no place to go. It will cost U.S. producers lots and lots of money.”
On the retail side, Tommy Wilkins, director of produce procurement for Lubbock, Texas-based retailer United Supermarkets LLC, said United broke ads Feb. 1 offering both romas and field rounds at 2 pounds for a dollar.
The glut of field-grown product has pulled the price of Mexican hothouse-grown tomatoes down by 30%, Wilkins said.
“It’s providing a great value for consumers, but it’s a shame for growers,” he said.