view current print edition




Nogales is down but not out following a record freeze

by Rand Green | February 09, 2011
As of Wednesday, Feb. 9, growers in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora were still assessing damage to assorted crops following a freeze the nights of Feb. 2-3, which is said to be the worst the area has seen in over half a century.

The Produce News spoke with distributors and brokers in Nogales, AZ, in the days following the freeze, who were tentative in their assessments, saying it would be at least another week or two before they would have any reliable information on how much growers might be able to salvage of some of the harder-hit crops.

But early indications were that losses ranged from 10 percent to 100 percent on various fields, depending on the commodity, location and whether it was open field or in some type of protective structure.

Several growers expect their overall losses to be as much as 50 percent to 70 percent, but others seem to have fared better.

At Fresh Farms in Nogales, Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing, said Feb. 8 that the company's growers "weren’t hurt as bad as they initially thought," and it appeared that “we are still going to have good product coming up from Mexico. We are still going to have good volume of excellent quality [products] coming up. There is some damage, but I don’t think it means that we are done with our season by any stretch of the imagination.”

A Feb. 9 press release from the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas in Nogales said, “Contrary to some early prognostications, we expect to see steady supplies of key items like tomatoes, bell peppers and melons throughout the season. West Mexico has a variety of micro-climates, meaning that while some fields were damaged extensively, growers from other areas will still be able to offer marketable supplies of key items.”

The release added, “Retail and foodservice buyers should continue to regard Nogales as their first choice for winter vegetables. Volumes may be lower than normal, but buyers will find that the market remains well-supplied because of the increase in protected agriculture and the variety of microclimates in Mexico.”

Immediately following the first night of the freeze, some growers said they experienced strong market demand from buyers trying to procure whatever product they could, due to the uncertainties of what may be available in the days and weeks ahead. The result was an immediate increase in prices on many commodities, and prices remained strong as of Feb. 8.

For example, “Tomatoes went from $7 or $8 up to $22 or $25, and Romas went from $7 or $8 to $30,” said Chuck Thomas, president of Thomas Produce Sales in Nogales, who added that the price for Bell peppers is “off the charts.”

The price on hard-shell squash, on the other hand, had climbed only to a more modest $16, he said, partly because it is hardier than some other crops and partly because unlike most other items in the Nogales deal, some growers ship out of storage rather than out of the field.

It will be “at least the end of [the week of Feb. 7 before] we can figure out where the markets really are,” Mr. Thomas said.

In general, crops grown in greenhouses fared better than those in shadehouses, while open-field crops were hit hardest. Most grape tomatoes are grown open field, so “losses are tremendous there,” said Mr. Thomas.

“A lot of the chili fields were wiped out,” he said. But “hothouse peppers — red, yellow and orange — and the one-layer tomatoes seem to be OK, for the most part anyway. Soft squash I think is gone in most areas,” with probably 80 percent loss overall.

Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer at Ciruli Bros. LLC in Nogales, said Feb. 9, “The open-field stuff for us is total devastation.” Green Bell peppers, eggplant and beans suffered “100 percent loss. We are discing those fields under, and there is no time to replant.”

Cucumbers, even those inside greenhouses, were also a total loss, he said.

However, “we feel we are going to be able to salvage part of the crop on the colored Bell [peppers].” A preliminary estimate is that the firm will have about half a crop. Within a few days, there will be “a better read on that,” he said.

With hothouse Romas and tomatoes also, “we feel that we will get 50 percent of that crop off,” Mr. Ciruli said.

Continuing cold weather is prolonging the time it will take to tell how well the crops will recover from the freeze, Mr. Ciruli noted.

“It varies from person to person how the fields were affected, but I think it is a widespread effect all the way from Hermosillo to Guaymas, Los Mochis and all the way down to Culiacan,” he said.

Earlier, there had been some concern that the company’s mango orchards in the higher elevations in the central Mexico state of Nayarit could be affected by frost, but those came out OK, Mr. Ciruli said. However, some of the later- season mangos in the Los Mochis area suffered severe damage, and there could even be tree damage to some young plantings.

“With our program, it looks like the cold came in and hurt us tremendously,” said Javier (J.J.) Badillo, director of diversified products for Calavo Growers Inc., who heads the company’s Nogales office. The frost “damaged approximately 70 percent of our remaining crop,” he said. It appears to have “put an end to our one-layer beefsteak program” and caused an interruption in the mature green program “from now until approximately April 15.”

However, he expected the vine-ripe program to continue for another three or four weeks.

“Bottom line, the cold was devastating, and it was very large in its coverage,” he said.

“We are still collecting information on the freeze,” said Mark Munger, director of marketing for San Diego-based A&W Fresh Produce, which grows tomatoes and other products in Culiacan. “We know we got hit pretty hard. It sounds like everybody did down there. Some areas had below-freezing temperatures that lasted more than six hours.”

Fortunately, he said, A&W has current production in Baja California, Mexico, which was not affected by the freeze.

“My experience has been that the initial crop damage [estimates] following a freeze are worse than they end up being” after the sun comes out and the plants begin to revive.

A Feb. 9 press release from Prime Time International LLC in Coachella, CA, stated, “We experienced two nights of extreme cold weather [in Mexico] where we grow our peppers both in the field and in controlled environments like plastic, mesh or glass. Our biggest losses occurred with field-grown peppers. The market has reacted dramatically.” Prime Time will have “extremely limited supplies of green Bell peppers available until our California production begins in early April.” Damage to red Bells grown in protected environments was less severe.