Nogales No Longer Top Spot For Mexican Tomato Imports

Published: Tuesday, November 6, 2018 - 5:31pm
Updated: Tuesday, November 6, 2018 - 6:10pm

Every year billions of pounds of Mexican produce worth billions of dollars pass through the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales. The import business is the most important source of private employment in the small border town, and those products end up in grocery stores and on dinner tables across the American West.

“When we look at Nogales, the produce imports are a really big deal,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

Few imports have been as financially significant for Nogales as the tomato. This most recent season they accounted for roughly a third of the $1.7 billion in vegetables that crossed there, according to federal trade data analyzed by KJZZ.

But for the most recent produce season, the $584 million worth of tomatoes that crossed through Hidalgo, Texas, edged out Nogales’ $579 million worth. They also beat out Nogales the previous calendar year, though Nogales remains the top port for all vegetable imports.

“The reason is simple,” said Dante Galeazzi, head of the Texas International Produce Association. “It’s logistics.”

He was referring to the ease of reaching East Coast markets through Texas ports for all fresh produce, not just tomatoes. The combined value of all fruit and vegetable imports through Hidalgo first bested Nogales in 2015.

Vera Pavlakovich-Kochi, a senior regional scientist with the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, also pointed to more greenhouse tomato growing in Central Mexico.

“Shipping anything from Central Mexico to the United States, the shortest distances are through Texas border ports of entry,” she said.

A relatively new superhighway connecting Sinaloa — the epicenter of Mexican tomato growing — and northeastern Mexico is also behind the trends, Pavlakovich and Galeazzi agreed.

But Nogales' future as an import hub is not in danger. It remains the best place to cross to reach West Coast markets. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that can be done to protect its position, according to Jungmeyer.

“We’re trying to broaden out the kinds of products that can be brought through Nogales,” he said.

He pointed to plans to add a cold inspection facility so that more Mexican berries — a $1 billion a year business — can go through Nogales. There are also efforts to improve road infrastructure in the town to remain competitive with Texas ports.

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