Apr 7, 2007
Lured by Good Market, Mexican Growers Battle Harsh Conditions

Mexico shows its least attractive face to Americans entering from above its northern border.

Not only do we carry in our memories the televised images of illegal immigrants sneaking through the deserts of the Southwest, as we cross the other way, by bus, into northern Mexico, we enter an environment that is bleak, barren, desolate and possibly hostile.

On June 12, about 60 American fruit growers crossed from El Paso, Texas, into Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, for the start of a five-day trip looking at fruit – mostly apples – growing in Mexico. Each year, the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) organizes a tour so growers can see other parts of the apple world. Last year was China, next year Australia, this year Mexico.

Neither of the sister cities, El Paso or Juarez, is paradise, but Juarez is on the poor side of the Rio Grande, with shack housing and enterprises like junkyards. It looks like the world headquarters for the used car parts business. Juarez also has about 300 macquiladoras – U.S. companies hiring Mexican labor and making products from auto parts to refrigerators for export. I live near Greenville, Mich., which recently lost 3,000 jobs when Electrolux moved its refrigerator plant to Juarez, so I notice.

Outside both cities, on both sides of the border, it’s desert. In Mexico, we saw no rattlesnakes, no roadrunners, no tarantulas. In fact, it’s more lifeless than that, devoid of people, dogs, birds or livestock as we traveled for nearly 200 miles along the two-lane pavement heading southwest toward Casas Grandes.

There are few people to be seen but plenty of evidence they must be somewhere. The shoulderless, two-lane, litter-strewn highway marches between endless miles of barbed wire fence snagging such treasures as countless wind-shredded plastic bags.

Periodically, you see where some intrepid person has built a small flat-roofed house of concrete block or adobe and surrounded it with a fence or wall. Across northern Mexico, most every piece of private property is protected by a barrier – even when there seems little behind it worth protecting. Poor places are surrounded by barbed wire with pickets of dry mesquite, or walls of poorly laid concrete block, or used pallets wired together. Richer places have brick walls or wrought iron fences. Businesses have roll-down steel doors and window bars.

Then, quite suddenly, we enter an oasis, a place with water that can be used for irrigation. In all of northern Chihuahua, without water there is nothing but barren soil dotted with mesquite and cactus.

So this is Mexico? Or is this desert just the physical and social barrier between us? Is the real Mexico the oases that provide the places where apples and other crops can grow? Is it the higher mountains and canyons further west, which we would see later, a place of tall pine trees where Tarahumara Indians live much as their ancestors did before the Spanish arrived and made their imprint on what would become Mexico?

In reality, we probably never saw the “real” Mexico. We never saw the lush, tropical place much further south where most of the nation’s 110 million people live, nearly 20 million of them in the world’s second largest urban area, Mexico City.

Yet Mexico City is magnetic, making its presence known in northern Mexico where we visited, and in Washington and Michigan, Virginia and New York – in all U.S. fruit growing regions. It is the market – millions of Mexicans liking apples and wanting to eat them – that drew us to Mexico, and it lures Mexican farmers into growing apples in this harsh environment.

In coming to Mexico, some of us had expected to see small, wiry, brown-skinned men tending orchards that they owned. But mainly, that is not the case. People who look just like us, tall and white-skinned, usually own the Mexican farms. The growers look the same in both Mexico and the United States – and so do the workers, but owners and workers look different from each other.

There, just like here, the growers sometimes complain about a shortage of labor. In northern Mexico, apple growers say the shortage is caused by the higher wages paid in the United States that have enticed millions of Mexicans to enter the country north of them, legally or illegally. Now, many of the northern Mexican growers must hire “migrant workers” from further south, from states like Chiapas, where even browner, smaller, wirier people filter north seeking work. Communication problems exist here, too. Their migrants are Indians who often speak neither English nor Spanish, but their indigenous language.

Mexican growers

Two people who made it easy to learn about the Mexican apple industry, because they are part of it, organized the IFTA trip.

One is Terence Robinson, a Cornell University researcher who is a leading U.S. authority on orchard design, tree spacing, pruning and rootstocks. Now an American citizen, he was born a Mexican and raised near Casas Grandes, a descendent of Utah Mormons who settled the area in 1885 after buying 5,000 acres of land from the government of Mexico. Two of their Mormon settlements remain, at Casas Grandes and Colonia Juarez.

Those communities, based on common religious interest, collected the capital, developed the infrastructure, drilled the water wells and built the dams and irrigation ditches that today collect and carry water to orchards and other crops. Mormons are not alone. Mennonites also farm in Mexican communities, growing grain and livestock mostly, sometimes fruit.

Terence’s older brother, John, and John’s son, Eric, manage the family orchards today. They enjoy an ongoing relationship with their gringo brother/uncle “professor” who influences them as they influence him – a person who contributes apple growing knowledge to growers in both countries and is at home in both places.

In a 95-percent-Catholic country, this community was once entirely Mormon. It is now half Mormon and the land is still primarily owned by descendents of Mormons who migrated to Mexico from Utah.

There are about 100 fruit producers in the Casas Grandes area, and John Robinson is a leader. He is chairman of the board of Paquime, a cooperative that packs 45,000 bins of peaches and 10,000 bins of apples for its members each year. Apples are declining as a crop in this area and peaches are growing.

Our other expert guide is Carlos Chavez, who owns orchards and an apple tree nursery more than a hundred miles southeast of Casas Grandes near Chihuahua. He has a Ph.D. in horticulture, teaches horticulture at the University of Chihuahua and a few years ago obtained the capital to purchase land and enter the “practical” side of the fruit business. He, like the Robinsons, uses cutting-edge technology.

Except for the extensive use of hand labor, there is nothing backward about the Mexican apple industry. Much of it is high-tech, and it takes a keen knowledge of apple science to make apples grow in Mexico.

Land, especially watered land, can be difficult to come by in Mexico. In land reforms begun nearly a century ago, land has gradually moved from large estates into government ownership and then into the hands of formerly landless peasants. Under a system called ejido, land from large estates has been given to groups of individuals – communities – but not to individuals themselves, Terry Robinson explained. The idea was to reorganize land ownership along traditional lines, as it had been when it was in tribal Native American ownership before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Ejido does not give individuals clear title to land, which makes it nearly worthless as collateral. For the last 15 years, the government has provided ways for ejido members to obtain title to individual parcels of land, and that is helping economic growth.

Lack of owner equity, plus investor fears about unstable currency, makes it difficult to build private enterprises of any kind, including profitable farms, Robinson said. Even Mexicans with money feel safer with their funds in American banks.

“Land reform changed the social order,” Robinson said. “At one time, 1 percent of the people had all the land and money. That’s changed now, but poverty is still a fact of life here.”

The middle class, while growing, is small.

One way to build enterprise in Mexico is to be one of the “historically rich.” After Spain invaded Central America 500 years ago, land was given to supporters of the king in the historic feudal manner. The large ranches, called haciendas, were like mini-states ruled by nobles and peopled by peasants who sharecropped the land. A caste system – related to land ownership, ancestry and skin color – pervaded the country. The largest landowner in Chihuahua state had 3 million acres. While many estates have been broken up, some large family farms still exist.

We saw one such farm, La Norteñita, owned by Salvador Corral Piñon and his family, growing apples on 5,000 acres and packing 2 million boxes a year in a state-of-the-art packing plant. On this farm, more than 5,000 people did the work of planting, irrigating, pruning, picking and packing apples. While little information was provided on the history of the operation, it was organized in its present form in 1968, when apples were first planted, and has several enterprises, including rangeland and a cattle feedlot. The entire enterprise covers 175,000 acres of land. Salvador and three sons run the operation.

Filling the market

Mexican and American apple growers agree on one thing: Mexican consumers like apples.

The chief point of disagreement hinges on how to fill the market. The viewpoints can be summarized as follows:

Mexican growers think Americans ruin good markets. While Mexican consumers pay well for apples, paying Mexican growers about 30 cents a pound for Red and Golden Delicious apples, American marketers dump cheap apples into a good market just because they have too many apples.

A Mexican court agrees with this viewpoint. The Chihuahua Apple Growers Association sued the American growers for dumping, and the court decision has resulted in tariffs and minimum prices at which American Red and Golden Delicious apples can enter Mexico.

Chavez, a board member of UNIFRUT, which is the union of fruit growers in Chihuahua, said that before the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican growers faced little competition. NAFTA increased imports and reduced the price of apples.

For their part, American growers think Mexicans charge too much for poor apples. Why should Mexicans have to eat small, hail-marked, green-skinned Golden Delicious apples when they can have bigger, prettier, yellower ones cheaper? Isn’t that what NAFTA is all about – access to markets that leads to greater consumer satisfaction?

Mexican growers produce only about 450,000 metric tons of apples a year – less than the output of New York state – in a market where consumers are buying 600,000 metric tons. Mexican growers agree they can share the market, but why do Americans want to trash the market? Must they do with apples what they did with corn?

At La Norteñita, located near Cuauhtémoc, hundreds of people, mostly women, were at work packing apples in a modern facility that accommodates the limitations of Mexico’s unkind growing conditions. For reasons related to climate, apples in the packing plant are highly variable in size, color and finish.

But a sophisticated sorting system divides the apples into constituent groups that will all be packed and labeled – and priced – accordingly. In the worst group will be small, green, hail-marked Golden Delicious, 138 or more to a box. In the best group, 88 large, yellow, smooth-skinned Yellow Delicious fill a box. Apples are not waxed.

The Mexican growers contend that, because Mexican consumers vary greatly in income, there is a market for all kinds of apples. Small apples are good for small people with small appetites, for children in poor families who don’t want to waste part of a large apple on a small child. Americans can’t figure why Mexican children shouldn’t have a larger, prettier apple – especially at the same price. But Americans have super sized everything, sometimes to their own detriment. Mexicans are thin.

Harsh climate

The reason there is room in the market for American apples is because the supply of good apple-growing sites in Mexico is limited, almost nonexistent by the standards of North American growers.

Apples are a temperate crop. They require a winter to send them into dormancy and a cold period to set the stage for emergence from dormancy. The Mexican apple growing area is about the latitude of north Florida, too far south for apples. So how do they grow apples in Mexico?

The secret is altitude. The climate in northern Mexico is high desert – mile high or more. In winter, temperatures fall enough – in some places – to give 600 to 1,200 chilling hours a year, about the minimum needed for Delicious and Gala, not enough for Romes.

The high desert also brings strong winds and freezing weather in spring. Almost all the orchards on our tour had frost protection: wind machines, oil burners and under-tree micro-sprinkler irrigation systems that need to be used half a dozen times or more each year.

In summer, temperatures soar above 100? F. About 8 inches of rain falls a year, mostly in July and August, the worst time. And because of the altitude, precipitation often comes as hail. Thousands of acres of apple trees around Chihuahua City, Guerrero and Cuauhtémoc were growing under hail netting, with trees either individually wrapped like cocoons or growing under metal frameworks that supported nets put up every spring and taken down after harvest.

Growers invest about $6,000 an acre in hail netting, they said. The nets themselves last about eight years, but the scaffolding lasts much longer.

Leonardo Parra, a young college graduate and son of Rafael Parra, a University of Chihuahua horticulturist on our tour, was optimistic about growing apples in Mexico.

“An orchard is hard to start but easy to maintain,” he said.

It takes a big investment for land, wells from 400 to 750 feet deep, trees and nets, he said, but year-to-year costs are lower because labor is less expensive and pest pressures are much lower.

In many years, orchards do not get the minimum number of chilling hours required to induce dormancy. Without adequate chilling, the bloom period may last two or three weeks, and buds that should break and form branches fail to break. The result is multiple-aged apples on the trees, like citrus, and long stretches of blind wood as the trunks elongate but form no branches.

Because of the long growing season, trees grow fast. But stretches of trunk 3 feet long with no leaves or branches were common symptoms in underchilled orchards. Rommel Corral, a young grower who borrowed family land and money to start an apple and sweet cherry orchard near Guerrero, called them “lion tails,” bare trunks topped with a tag of leaves.

To alleviate the problems, growers hope for cold weather and use chemicals like Revent or Dormex that substitute for chilling hours. In peaches, Dormex used in the U.S. South can substitute for up to 300 chilling hours, researchers say. The Mexican growers also use tree scoring and Promalin paints to force lateral branching.

Growers like Carlos Chavez believe the chilling problem is getting worse. That is, winters are getting warmer. Global warming, he said, may be the reason so many winters are not producing the needed chilling hours.

The apples ripen in a warm season, so Red Delicious end up with green stripes and Golden Delicious remain greenish. Surround is sometimes used to prevent sunscald.

Soil also is a problem. The scenic, erosion-sculpted Sierra Madre Mountains that provide the parent soil are limestone, so soils with pH of 7 and above are typical. The warm climate is not conducive to formation or preservation of soil organic matter, a situation that has made most Mexican apple growers confirmed believers in the power of composted livestock manure. It is routinely applied, often at a rate of 25 pounds per tree per year, to enhance soil organic matter, reduce pH and add microorganisms to a mostly barren and poorly structured soil.

At La Norteñita, the cattle feedlot provides the core ingredient for a huge composting operation that combines an initial hot composting followed by vermiculture – composting by earthworms. Making and spreading compost was a major part of the work there.

Near Nuevo Casas Grandes, we saw the orchard of Jose Luis Armendariz, who is working with compost to raise organic matter and fight root rots in the high-pH soil. He had a high-density Gala orchard and a large acreage of peaches.

Tourists or consultants?

On an IFTA tour, many travelers are industry experts who operate nurseries, hold research and Extension positions at universities or grow fruit on dwarfing rootstocks. The interaction between host and guest often seemed more like that between grower and consultant, and questions were often challenging.

The Mexican growers we visited were innovative, but they were rarely driven to innovation by cost or availability of labor.

Until recently, they had not adopted dwarfing rootstocks because, for them, trees growing on seedling rootstocks created cheaper orchards, and the big trees could be picked and pruned with workers moving ladders. But, seeking greater productivity, the new plantings are on dwarfing rootstocks, many in close spacing on wire trellises, and the growers show great creativity and willingness to experiment with new systems.

Apple trees were growing on vertical axis and slender spindle systems with one central leader, but also on systems with multiple scaffolds and trunks, like perpendicular V. For cherries and peaches, several training systems were being used, including Spanish bush.

In one net-covered orchard, owned by attorney Frederica Hagelsieb and managed by Jorge Suarez, apple trees were trained with four upright trunks emerging from four scaffolds, like double perpendicular Vs. When challenged, the manager agreed he didn’t get the results he’d hoped for. Four trunks didn’t really do more than two in a perpendicular V.

On the same farm, another orchard was planted to trees with central leaders that grew to more than 15 feet, with four layers of scaffold limbs. Challenged by the visiting critics, Suarez agreed the trees were too tall and the top laterals were shading out the lower trees. A shorter tree could have just as much good fruit borne lower, he said.

But labor wasn’t really an issue, even though each tree had to be covered by hail net, by hand, and the net removed for pruning and harvesting. Ladders and poles had to be used to pick and to move the net on and off the row of trees.

Mexican workers

While labor is not expensive, workers in Mexico receive protections and benefits they don’t get in the United States. H-2A workers in the United States get some protections and some benefits, like housing and minimum-time contracts. Illegal workers get no protections.

Dana Call, a grower near the Mormon settlement at Colonia Juarez, said Mexican wages of $60 a week were not enough to keep local workers from emigrating, and migrants from further south were moving north to work in the northern Mexican orchards.

Guillermo Gonzalez, a retired fruit grower, explained some facets of the Mexican social scheme. Workers on Mexican farms, while paid less, are housed at grower expense and require contracts for time – and apple growers were sharing workers with those who grew peaches and chili peppers to fill the season.

While common laborers are paid about $10 a day in Mexico, skilled workers and supervisors make up to $30 a day. Employers must pay income taxes and taxes for social security and medical care.

Mexico has a national health care system of which Mexicans are proud, Gonzalez said. The educational system, which once was largely reserved for those like the Mormons who developed it for themselves, is now widely available for all, at least in lower grades.

Workers who are “captive” – they work for known employers – pay taxes, but some 77 percent of Mexicans, including many of the richest, pay no taxes at all, Gonzalez said. Tax evasion and the inequities that come with that are a social problem.

Carlos Chavez, who started his nursery in 1995 and now raises half a million apple and peach trees per year, hires about 50 people and keeps them busy year round. Trees are bud-grafted right in the ground at a piecework cost of 11 cents a tree. With 200 frost-free days a year, the trees grow fast. The young trees are defoliated with urea and copper sulfate in November so they can be dug and planted in January. Trees go direct from his nursery fields to the growers with no time in storage. An ethephon spray is used to break dormancy after the young trees are planted.

Chavez started his orchard in 1983 and has about 300 acres of land total. His workers have full-year jobs, grafting in March and April, thinning in May, weeding in June, picking peaches in July and apples in August and September. Pruning takes the remaining fall months until nursery work starts again in January.

Love-hate relations

Terence Robinson said the “love-hate relationship” between the United States and Mexico has its roots in events between 1830 and 1850, during which time U.S. settlers were welcomed into Mexican land but turned on their hosts and rebelled, taking away what became the U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Utah.

“The Mexicans never forgave the U.S. for taking that land,” Robinson said. “The hurt feelings persist.”

That also helps explain the different views over “illegal immigrants.” The borders drawn then made a new political map but had less effect on the cultural one, especially for Mexicans. Mexicans see little reason a watery line across a desert should divide families and a culture that never stopped at the border.

Lessons we learned

1. The Mexican apple industry operates under harsh climatic conditions and those switching to peaches and sweet cherries, with ideas about exporting, are probably on the right track.
2. The Mexican apple industry is essentially local and is suffering from lower prices and U.S. competition since NAFTA came into effect.
3. Both U.S. and Mexican fruit growers rely heavily on cheap Mexican labor. Under existing conditions, U.S. growers are winning in the competition for them. If the U.S. clamps down on illegal immigration, Mexican growers will benefit.

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