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Protected agriculture expands in Mexico

by Rand Green | December 06, 2011
Every year, a larger share of produce grown in Mexico for export to the United States is grown in protective structures of various types, such as these shadehouses in Culiacan.

The number of acres of vegetable crops and other horticultural commodities grown in Mexico, largely for export to the United States, continues to increase, and much of that growth comes from growers who are converting from open-field to protected agriculture, according to Eric Viramontes, chief executive officer of the Associación Mexicana de Horticultura Protegida A.C., or the Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture, headquartered in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, and better known by its acronym, AMHPAC.

“Today, we are around 18,000 hectares (45,000 acres) of protected agriculture throughout Mexico,” which is significant growth, he said in an interview with The Produce News Nov. 15. Crops grown under protected structures now represent a preponderance of horticultural exports to the United States.

Protected agriculture refers to a wide assortment of technologies, from hoop houses to shadehouses to greenhouses, with the technology selected for any operation determined by a variety of factors such as geographic location, climate, the crops grown, the achievable improvements in quality, consistency and productivity, and of course the capital outlay required for a particular type of structure.

In Mexico, the state of Sinaloa “is definitely the most aggressive growing state in Mexico in terms of protected agriculture,” said Mr. Viramontes. Currently, there are more than 5,100 hectares [12,750 acres] of protected agriculture” in Sinaloa, and that is “growing at a steady pace,” with a 14-percent growth rate this year. “Most of that growth is because we had a very bad freeze last year, so many growers are converting from open-field to protected agriculture” in the hope of minimizing future losses.

The state of Jalisco now has around 2,700 hectares (6,750 acres) of protected agriculture. Northern and Southern Baja California combined have around 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres) for those two states. Coahuila, bordering Texas, “has grown to 2,600 hectares [6,500 acres] this year and had growth around 7 percent,” Mr. Viramonte said. Other states, such as Guanajuato, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas, have seen steady growth, and several other states have slower development.

Major crops grown under protected agriculture include various tomato products, colored Bell peppers, different types of cucumbers and squash. There is continual diversification in the crops grown, but much of that diversification is in terms of specialty items in the same categories, such as more specialized tomatoes or more specialized Bells like the mini-bells, he said.

But there also are “new products going inside the greenhouses with very high success.” Eggplant is an example. In the past, eggplant was grown open field, but that is now, more and more, being grown indoors very successfully. The same is true with green beans, and that has largely been spurred by the extensive losses to freeze damage suffered by open-field beans last winter, he said.

“Even lettuce is going into hydroponic systems [in greenhouses] in the central part of Mexico,” he said.

The emphasis continues to be on traditional items as this is what the market demands, Mr. Viramontes continued. “But more and more, there are going to be new niches of the market for other types of products.” As an example, “we just had a member join this year — and others are following — that are growing papayas inside shade houses,” he said.

The use of protective structures for berries of all types is “growing dramatically,” particularly in Baja and the states of western central Mexico such as Michoacàn and Jalisco, he said.

The protected horticulture industry in Mexico has generated around 230,000 jobs throughout the country, Mr. Viramontes said. “The industry has also been very important for the United States,” generating more than 8,000 stateside jobs” in transportation and distribution in 2009, “probably one of the worst years in terms of losing jobs” for the U.S. economy as a whole.”

Protected agriculture “is one of the most structured kinds of agriculture you are going to find in the world,” and the people who are “working within these technologies are going to be businessmen, professional growers,” many of whom are third- or fourth-generation agribusiness people, he said. “They have a great tradition behind them, and they have great know-how” as well as “a lot of love for agriculture.” When that is combined with Mexico’s great climate conditions, it provides one of the better options for supplying vegetables to the United States and Canada.