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After last years' freeze and volatile markets, 2011-12 looks like a return to normal

by Rand Green | December 05, 2011
Tomatoes growing in a protected environment in Mexico.

NOGALES, AZ -- Anything can happen when it comes to weather, as anyone in the produce industry will tell you and as everyone in the Nogales deal saw last February, when the worst freeze in 54 years caused extensive damage across many growing areas in West Mexico and created shortages that sent markets soaring. The freeze brought an abrupt end to what had been a period of surplus volumes and weak markets for many commodities, but the resulting high prices were of little benefit to those who had almost nothing left to sell.

The Spring 2011 deal again saw overproduction and low prices on some items.

For 2011-12, shippers and distributors in Nogales say that the growing season to date has been mostly ideal except for two weather events that caused delays: a period of rain at planting time and a hot spell.

The acreage devoted to shadehouses and other protected agriculture is up this year, motivated partly by last winter's freeze, as some growers felt that their covered crops fared at least somewhat better than those in the open field. By the same token, open-field plantings are said to be down this year.

Cash-flow issues are said to have caused some growers to reduce their acreage, particularly for the early season, but opinions vary as to whether overall planted acreage is up a little or down a little from 2010-11.

Water shortages in some areas, particularly southern Culiacan in the state of Sinaloa, have apparently had little effect on plantings. Industry sources say that growers chose to reduce grain and corn acreage rather than fresh produce acreage. For protected agriculture, that decision would certainly be expected, as there are infrastructure investments to protect.

Robert Gotsis, general manager of Agricola Gotsis S.A. in Culiacan, said that even though there was a severe water shortage in some of the growing areas in Sinaloa -- with reservoirs averaging just 30 percent of capacity -- it did not appear to be affecting planted acreage of vegetables grown for export.

For every 10 acres of land that farmers there would normally have in production, he said, they had to give up six acres and plant just four. But in most cases, they are giving up a lot of the acreage on the grains or corn in order to keep 100 percent of their vegetable acreage in production.

Chuck Thomas, president of Thomas Produce Sales Inc., here, said Nov. 11 that there appeared to be a little bit of a late start on certain products this year. That is partly due to weather-related planting delays, but also for some growers because of a shortage of money to put up front for planting costs. Losses from last year's freeze and an increasing reluctance of banks to loan money. "There is not as much money as in years past to get some of the bigger early plantings going," he said.

"We are off to a little bit of a slow start," said Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer of Ceruli Bros Inc., here, Nov. 7. "We were a couple of weeks behind ... coming out with cukes out of Caborca. That was due to some extreme hot weather when we went into the fields there." In Culiacan, "we are seeing a little bit of delay" because of rains during the planting season.

"Normally, we should have green peppers up here before Thanksgiving," he said, but this year, "we probably won't have any green peppers until the middle part of December."

Other than that, he said, he is looking to return to a normal year after last year's freeze.

With few exceptions, growing conditions have been good, said Joe Bernardi, president of Bernardi & Associates Inc., here, Nov. 16. He expects such core crops as tomatoes, cucumbers and Bell peppers to have good quality and good supplies beginning in December and picking up with more product into January and February.