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Grower of ‘Plain Jane’ brand products builds more greenhouses in Mexico

“Plain Jane” brand tomatoes, Bell peppers and cucumbers, which are grown in Mexico by Melones Internacional SA de CV and distributed and marketed by Apache Produce Co. Inc. in Nogales, AZ, are all greenhouse grown. This year, Melones has expanded its greenhouse operations in Culiacan in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, and is in process of building additional greenhouses in the state of Nayarit, according to Alejandro Canelos, a principal in Melones and an officer in Apache.

Nogales-Apache-Alejandro
Alejandro Canelos

Melones Internacional has been growing greenhouse products in Culiacan since 1994. Last year, the company had 289 hectares of greenhouses in production devoted to the growing of round tomatoes, Euro cucumbers and red, yellow and orange Bell peppers, which are packed in the “Plain Jane” label introduced four years ago.

But the production volume from the company’s existing greenhouses was inadequate “to satisfy even the customer base that we have,” Mr. Canelos told The Produce News Nov. 16. Therefore, Melones has built additional greenhouses that are now in production for the 2011-12 season, and it is in process of building more. “Right now, our customer base is limited by our supply” rather than production being limited by demand, he said. “That is a good situation to be in. That is why you expand.”

This year, “we built another 25 hectares [62.5 acres] of greenhouses in Culiacan, so that brings us up to a total of 314 covered hectares [785 acres].” Those are all greenhouses, he emphasized. “We don’t have any shadehouses.”

In addition, “we are currently beginning construction on another 20 hectares [60 acres] or so” of greenhouses in Nayarit, he said. “Right now, we have a small operation down there, but we are hoping to grow that to 100 hectares [250 acres] in three years.”

The Nayarit facilities will be used initially for growing round tomatoes and colored Bell peppers, whereas “in Culiacan it is tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers,” he said.

The season in Nayarit will run September through January. In Culiacan, “we are just starting with cukes right now,” and the season runs from mid-November to June, he said.

Asked why the company chooses to grow in greenhouses rather than shadehouse structures, which are more common in the Culiacan area, Mr. Canelos said, without passing judgment on other growing operations, that it makes economic sense for the company.

He acknowledged that for various reasons the experiences of other growers may differ, and “everybody has their way of looking at things,” he said. Among the considerations are “access to capital, cost of capital and the ability to take advantage of the asset in a way that makes it as profitable as it can be.”

For Melones, “our experience over the years — and we have been doing this for 16 years now — is that dollar for dollar, we are better off building greenhouses,” he said. Even though it costs more to build a greenhouse, “it just comes down to a simple calculation of return on investment.”

Melones has had shadehouses in the past, early on, so it has a basis for comparison, and it found that “we get better yield and quality and consistency in a greenhouse,” Mr. Canelos said. Consistency is “really key. Our quality is the same, basically, regardless of weather — not totally, but as compared to a shadehouse.”

The greenhouse technology being used by Melones may not deliver the consistency that is achievable in an even more costly high-tech operation with glass and carbon dioxide, he said. It is “all part of a gradient,” but “for us, that would be overkill in Culiacan because there are so many natural advantages to that growing region in terms of the sun and temperatures and the soil and everything else.”

Beyond the consistency that Melones is able to attain in its greenhouse operations, the commitment to consistent quality extends to the packing operation as well. “We try to be really disciplined in our packingshed to make sure that if it isn’t ‘Plain Jane’ quality, it isn’t going in a ‘Plain Jane’ box. It doesn’t matter of the market is five dollars or $50. We try to do that,” even though it “can be costly sometimes,” he said. “We think — for us, over the long haul — it is better.”