Apr 7, 2007
Mexico’s High Desert Apple Orchards Fuel Warm Thoughts

Travelers come in two types, I’ve noticed.

There are the critical types, who don’t see much good in the way other folks do things. They compare everything they see, unfavorably, to what they left back home. If they see something they like, they assert it was invented in the United States and copied or stolen. And they definitely don’t like the food.

I’m the other kind. Whenever I travel, I’m amazed at the variety of ways humans find to organize their lives. And since feeding oneself is such a basic human need, traveling with farmers and looking at farming is the most exciting kind of travel possible. I always come back with recipes. I learned to drink Yerba Mate in Brazil and to eat Scotch eggs in England and hummus in Israel, and now I’ve added Chiles Rellenos from Mexico.

I’ve had opportunities to travel, and I’ve never found a place that didn’t fascinate me.

Mexico isn’t far away, but I’d never been there until June this year. The Fruit Growers News bought me a ticket to join about 60 fruit farmers and industry experts on a tour organized by the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA).

It was a terrific opportunity to see the Mexican apple industry, and I’m busily writing my report, which will be published in our November issue.

And what a timely trip. There is the ongoing feud between American and Mexican apple growers over free trade and market access. There are the border issues and the ongoing debate about the terms and conditions of U.S. use of Mexicans, legal or illegal, for agricultural labor.

I’m from the wet side of the United States, and I take water for granted. Some of my fellow travelers were from arid fruit-producing regions, but seeing apples growing in the desert was new to me.

When I headed toward the Sierra Madre Mountains, I had mental images of orchards on mountain slopes, as in Pennsylvania or Virginia. I wasn’t prepared for rows of trees on pancake-flat, dry valley floors with mountains off in the distance.

Growing apples in Mexico is a challenge. While labor is mostly cheap, growing conditions are terrible. The high deserts of Chihuahua are not cold enough long enough in winter, so sometimes the trees don’t get enough chilling hours. Without sufficient dormancy, the trees don’t know when or how to bloom properly.

The deserts are, however, cold in spring, and freezing conditions occur several times every spring, so wind machines, oil heaters and irrigation systems are in every orchard. What little rain falls often comes as hail. Trees are wrapped or covered in hail nets.

Because of the spread-out bloom and the summer heat, apples mature unevenly and don’t color well.

“Don’t drink the water,” everyone advises travelers to Mexico. There isn’t much to drink. The shortage of water is a constant issue, and when water supply fails, orchards die quickly. An abandoned orchard in Mexico doesn’t look like an abandoned orchard in Michigan.

Despite the obstacles, the Mexican growers are pushing ahead. They’re adopting new rootstocks, orchard designs and training systems and growing apples for a market that’s bigger than their capacity to fill. They hope the Americans won’t wreck it by flooding it with cheap apples, as American corn growers did with cheap corn.

The Americans seem to think Mexicans are good workers and potentially good consumers, but their empathy with Mexicans as growers is much weaker. The IFTA tour put U.S growers shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye, with Mexican growers. When that happens, competitive juices are staunched, at least briefly, and the cooperative spirit flourishes.

Whether this will ultimately ease tensions between U.S. and Mexican growers, or change U.S. growers’ ideas about marketing in Mexico, is anybody’s guess, but the orchard meetings in the high Mexican desert provided the opportunity.

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