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Nogales deal going strong after slow start

by Keith Rosenblum | March 04, 2010
NOGALES, AZ — A season that began with the doldrums has become one of the more profitable in memory for the Nogales produce industry with the only apparent difference between brokers, growers and distributors being the amount by which they have profited from production problems in other growing regions.

Many of the players in border produce today were in junior high school at the time of the last great Florida freeze in 1990 and have never experienced the deluge of calls from panicked East Coast buyers seeking to fulfill contracts. Some of them have seen drastic escalations and drops in prices, but few to rival a fivefold increase in green bean prices or a tripling in the price of tomatoes in a matter of days.

One of the deans of Nogales produce, Harry Sbragia, has been in Nogales since 1966. He called the days after the Florida freeze "like nothing — nothing — I have witnessed in my time here," as he adjusted his role at JMB Distributing from green bean salesman to green bean rationer.

Chris Ciruli, chairman of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and partner in Ciruli Bros. LLC in Nogales, expressed optimism about the likelihood for a continued profitable season, but urged caution, too. “Crossings are higher, markets are better and we're managing the outbound,” he said. “We just need to remind ourselves that, for many, this is a 52-week- a-year business — not a few weeks or few months.”

The produce year to date has been a healthy one with import figures on par or slightly ahead of the 2009 season. Among the greatest volumes: 382 million pounds of tomatoes, 337.1 million pounds of cucumbers, 254.2 million pounds of squash, and 193.9 million pounds of bell peppers, 159 million pounds of watermelon, 79.7 million pounds of honeydew, 49 million pounds of eggplant, 41.5 million pounds of chili peppers and 26.1 million pounds of green beans.

Prices, however, show a dramatic change not suggested in the import volume. Three months ago, the wholesale price of a 25-pound box of tomatoes was about $9. That figure has now tripled. A 20-pound box of green beans that cost $10-$12 during the summer and typically $25 or lesss in the winter, is now selling for $50-$60.