Chaotic Export Season Sows Uncertainty For Mexican Tomato Growers

By Murphy Woodhouse
Published: Tuesday, July 16, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, July 16, 2019 - 7:01am

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Mexican Tomatoes
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Fire burns through piles of last year's tomato plants at Etchohuaquila Organic in southern Sonora.

In early July, flames were quickly eating through dry piles of last season’s tomato plants at the outskirts of Etchohuaquila Organic, a tomato farm in southern Sonora. A few shriveled tomatoes were still on the vine, but the vast majority ended up in homes and restaurants across the United States.

This is downtime for the farm and many other Mexican tomato growers — when they mend equipment, till fields and make plans for the next season.

But last season was no ordinary season and has left many growers — especially tomato growers — with a deep sense of uncertainty.

Mexican Tomatoes
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Casimiro Luna is the director of Etchohuaquila Organic.

“Yeah, it was stressful, it hit us hard,” said Casimir Luna, the farm’s director.

The 2013 Suspension Agreement on Fresh Tomatoes from Mexico set floor prices and other rules for Mexican imports. When the U.S. Department of Commerce ended the deal in early May, the nearly 18% tariffs started. But that hasn’t been the only source of stress for Luna.

President Donald Trump’s threats to close the border and impose steadily increasing tariffs on all Mexican exports didn’t help. While the border never closed and a recent binational migration deal stopped the imposition of additional tariffs for the time being, the anxiety remains.

“With these governments, we’re going to be living under that threat,” he said. “And that’s going to continue affecting us as producers.”

But the most concrete impacts are due to the tomato duties. Concerned about the lower cash flow they may have next season as a result, Luna said Etchohuaquila’s creditors are asking them to significantly reduce their acreage next year by as much as 20%.

Mexican Tomatoes
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ News
The Etchohuaquila Organic shade structures have been stripped for the down season.

“And what’s that going to do?” he asked. “That we’re going to reduce our workforce by 20%.”

That’s about 100 people at Etchohuaquila. He said another nearby farm closed down entirely. And impacts aren’t limited to the Mexican side: one long-standing Nogales importer said they will no longer be the importer of record for any Mexican tomatoes, likely substantially reducing the amount of product they handle. That could also mean reduced employment at the business.

“It’s been a very complicated season,” said Alfredo Diaz, head of AMHPAC, which represents several hundred protected agriculture operations across Mexico. “And it’s gotten more complicated as a result of the 17.56 tariff on tomato exports going into effect.”

The tariff has been especially hard on small and medium producers who may lack the financial wherewithal to handle duty payments, according to Diaz.

Diaz and Casimiro are hopeful ongoing negotiations will bring a new agreement and end the tariff. But for now growers are deciding what and how much to plant not knowing whether that tariff will rise, fall, or go away entirely.

“We’re all dealing with that uncertainty,” he said.

Mexican Tomatoes
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Enrique Rivera is the manager at Etchohuaquila Organic.

All of this has invigorated a longstanding interest among Mexican producers to seek markets elsewhere.

“The wolf arrived on May 7 of this year,” he said, referring to the tomato tariff. “That’s when we started to regret depending on just one market.”

The vast majority of Mexican tomato production is for export, and nearly all of those exports go to the United States, according to Diaz. Work is already underway to gain greater access to Asian and European markets. But that doesn’t mean abandoning the U.S. market, which he said Mexican growers have come to dominate.

“But it does make us less vulnerable to threats like the one we’re dealing with now with tariffs,” he said.

Back in Etchohuaquila, a tractor is churning up big chunks of dark soil under stripped shade house frames.

“For now we’re going to let it rest a little, about 20 days, or maybe less,” manager Enrique Rivera said.

After it rests and solarizes, they’ll turn compost into it, and prepare the beds for planting. Most of Etchohuaquila’s production last year had been exported before the tariffs started in May, according to Rivera.

But if they’re still in place come November, when the farm starts cranking out tomatoes, “the problem will be critical,” Rivera said.

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