Editorials | Issues
|A Growing Threat to Mexico's Crops|
William Pack - San Antonio Express-News
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December 16, 2010
The drug violence in Mexico has a new potential victim: the potent agricultural sector in that country and its multibillion-dollar ties to consumers, farmers and ranchers in the United States.
|Bruce Frasier of Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs.|
So far, two South Texas produce companies have changed the way they conduct business there.
It's primarily how they move strawberries, melons, onions and other produce out of Mexico that has been affected rather than the growing practices themselves, company representatives said.
While officials agreed the U.S.'s booming agricultural trade with Mexico was not facing significant risks from drug cartels now, they were less certain it could stand up to several more years of drug-related challenges.
“It's in the back of (everyone's) mind,” said Curtis DeBerry, who owns Boerne-based Progreso Produce. “It has the potential to be a problem.”
Progreso already is transporting commodities grown in places like the city of Tampico on Mexico's Gulf Coast and the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico in multi-truck caravans from Ciudad Victoria in Tamaulipas state to Texas about 300 miles to the north.
The border region is the riskiest area in Mexico, and drivers need the added security, DeBerry said.
Drivers for Edinburg-based Frontera Produce, meanwhile, stay off the most isolated roads and try not to travel at night while bringing fruits and vegetables to Texas.
It has onion growers in the Tampico area, raises pineapples farther south around the state of Veracruz and produces other crops throughout Mexico.
“It's not good to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Chris Eddy, Frontera's sales director.
Still, he and DeBerry said the violence has not convinced the companies to trim Mexican operations this year, and they don't expect other Mexican growers to behave much differently.
“There is a security issue along the border, but it has not affected agricultural shipments across the border,” DeBerry said.
At least, no one can say definitively that it has.
Extortion demands by the cartel for safe transfer of agricultural commodities are widely rumored in Mexico but difficult to confirm. Shipments reportedly have been stolen and drivers harassed, though some speculate that drug cartels may not be as responsible for that violence as other criminals hiding behind the drug-related turmoil.
Still, random violence has increased in isolated areas of the country, raising the professional and personal risks of farmers and the chances they may flee to safer environments.
Juan Anciso, a vegetable specialist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Weslaco, said for Mexican growers with the money and the means to move, that's beginning.
“People are being driven away from that sector,” he said. “It's too risky in Mexico.”
The financial implications of a longer drug war are significant.
Mexico is the United States' second-largest agricultural trading partner, with bilateral trade topping $20 billion a year. Mexican exports nearly $6 billion of fresh fruits and vegetables a year into the U.S., and Texas is one of its key ports of entry, said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association. Avocados, melons, limes, strawberries, tomatoes, onions and peppers are among the biggest imports.
McClung said Mexican growers are responsible for about 60 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetables that are consumed in and shipped from Texas.
Anciso said the issues springing from Mexico's drug war have become more noticeable since this summer. He's talked to three sorghum farmers in Mexico who had been stung by the drug violence and were looking to buy thousands of acres of land in Texas.
One grower had his equipment stolen in Mexico and another faced extortion demands, Anciso said. He suspected vegetable growers and other farmers in Mexico faced similar problems.
“They're extorting any business that is making money,” Anciso said.
McClung discounts the idea that farmers are getting out of Mexico. He doesn't doubt some Mexican growers are shopping for land in the U.S., but he said the higher cost of production here, limited water availability and other issues could make the move unwise.
McClung knew one farmer with operations in the United States and Mexico who studied shifting more production into the U.S. but couldn't make the numbers work.
Virtually all of the fruits and vegetables in South Texas need irrigation, and water can be difficult to find. Weather extremes in Texas also limit what can be produced here, officials said.
Mexican violence is “driving some people crazy, but it's not driving them away,” McClung said.
An official in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City's Agricultural Trade Office cited a recent report showing that while truckers are taking more precautions, exports from Mexico to the U.S. have not slumped.
Officials with H-E-B and Desert Glory, a San Antonio firm that grows tomatoes in Mexican greenhouses under the NatureSweet brand, said their operations in that country haven't been hampered by problems with drug cartels.
Bryant Ambelang, CEO of Desert Glory, said it will expand its Guadalajara-area operations next year.
Eric Rojo, a security analyst and a member of the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said the problems Mexico is facing from drug cartels have been exaggerated. While a small number of residents have been victimized by crime, most Mexicans lead normal lives, untouched by the cartels, he said.
Asked if he thought the country's agricultural sector was being targeted by drug lords, Rojo said: “I'd have to be very skeptical.”
But Bruce Frasier, president of Dixondale Farms near Carrizo Springs, has heard enough reports about extortion demands and other problems in Mexico to be concerned.
Dixondale sells young onion plants to onion growers across the country, in Mexico and Canada. As a result of the violence, however, Frasier no longer travels to Mexico like he did before.
“It's too dangerous,” he said.