Chuck Thomas is a third-generation produce broker who has seen tomatoes be the core of his business for many, many years.
“Year-round, they represent about 60 percent of our business, and that has remained fairly steady for the last few years,” said the proprietor of Thomas Produce Sales in Nogales, AZ. “But I expect that to decline a bit as the years go by, and we will get closer to 50 percent tomatoes and 50 percent other vegetables.”
Thomas reasons that with the latest publicity surrounding the marketing of Mexican tomatoes and the imposition of the new suspension agreement, Mexican producers will plant a fewer acres expecting less demand. He said some retailers — especially those in the South and Southeast near Florida — have indicated that they are going to buy more U.S.-grown tomatoes. Mexican growers see the handwriting on the wall and many would rather take a risk with other vegetable crops that don’t have the specter of the suspension agreement hovering over their financial statements. Of course, Thomas quipped, the minute Florida can’t fill the demand, these retailers will be back looking for Mexican tomatoes, which may or may not be there.
Thomas Produce Sales, in fact, is planning for the increase in its own vegetable supplies by planning for an expansion of its Nogales facilities. “I think we need to expand our facilities to get ready for that change in our business,” he said.
As a buying broker, Thomas sources from districts all over the country, but he said crossings at Nogales form “the core of my business.”
Though his father and grandfather before him also made the produce industry their career beginning in the 1930s, he does not expect the next generation of Thomases to follow suit.
“They’re not interested and I can’t blame them. It isn’t as fun as it used to be. There are a lot more challenges to deal with than we ever had before. When you called I was just reading about the new emission standards in California. They are always coming up with something to make it more difficult.”
With transportation on his mind, Thomas said the second half of the summer is proving to be much more freight friendly than the first half. “In May and June, I saw some rates I’d never seen before. Trucks were getting from $8,500 to $8,800 to go to the East Coast from Nogales. I heard of some $10,000 rates from Salinas to Boston and New England. It was unbelievable.”
He said there had been a significant reduction in freight rates since then and he expected the current situation to maintain for at least another month or so. “We could see another big increase in late September, but I think we are OK for now,” he said.
He added that fuel costs have been in check all summer, but that could change in a moment’s notice if a crisis in the oil-producing Mideast were to occur.
Thomas also threw a dart at the federal government’s plan to greatly expand the international crossing station in Nogales yet not allocate any money to fund extra personnel. “We are going to have a lot more lanes but no more people to staff them so they are going to have to remain closed,” he said.